You Just Sit Here, Little Daddy
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“Maybe you should move in with a man,” Derrick told his daughter Polly over the phone. She was having trouble with roommates. “There might be less intensity.”
Poetry Feature: Eleanor Swanson
Featuring the poems:
- Radium Girls
- The Laboratory at Night
- Marie Curie and Albert Einstein in Engadine
- Dr. Tobe Attends MME. Curie on Her Deathbed
We sat at long tables side by side in a big
dusty room where we laughed and carried
on until they told us to pipe down and paint.
The running joke was how we glowed,
the handkerchiefs we sneezed into lighting
up our purses when we opened them at night,
our lips and nails, painted for our boyfriends
as a lark, simmering white as ash in a dark room.
“Would you die for science?” the reporter asked us,
Edna and me, the main ones in the papers.
Science? We mixed up glue, water and radium
powder into a glowing greenish white paint
and painted watch dials with a little
brush, one number after another, taking
one dial after another, all day long,
from the racks sitting next to our chairs.
After a few strokes, the brush lost its shape,
and our bosses told us to point it with
our lips. Was that science?
I quit the watch factory to work in a bank
and thought I’d gotten class, more money,
a better life, until I lost a tooth in back
and two in front and my jaw filled up with sores.
We sued: Edna, Katherine, Quinta, Larice and me,
but when we got to court, not one of us
could raise our arms to take the oath.
My teeth were gone by then. “Pretty Grace
Fryer,” they called me in the papers.
All of us were dying.
We heard the scientist in France, Marie
Curie, could not believe “the manner
in which we worked” and how we tasted
that pretty paint a hundred times a day.
Now, even our crumbling bones
will glow forever in the black earth.
The Laboratory at Night
Hand in hand we walk in the darkness, beneath
the stars where all but the simplest atoms are made.
Helium and hydrogen alone belong to earth, the rest
to space, to these stars, glowing with a light of their
own, light overlapping light across the dusty Milky Way.
I feel the damp grass through my shoes, smell the night’s
perfume of beast and flower, earth and air.
We have just kissed our daughters good night.
My heart’s wings are green and gossamer.
It leaps like a springfly, up and down.
I unlock the door and it swings open,
squeaking loudly on its ancient hinges.
I must fix it so that finally we may enter
the laboratory in silence, undistracted.
Marie puts her hand upon my own.
“Don’t light the lamps,” she whispers.
Suddenly we stand among a roomful
of stars caught in vials and tubes placed
on tabletops and shelves, everywhere,
phosphorescent bluish light, our radium.
I am dreaming.
I have entered an unearthly garden.
I am trembling. I want to live
in my body forever.
“You see, Pierre,” Marie says,
her voice full of happiness,
and echoing in the spacious room,
“your wish has come true,
that our discovery be beautiful.”
Ah, my dear.
The beauty of the stars, ancient cosmic
particles colliding to form atoms, such as
this very atom. Starlight distilled, this light
that glows around us on all sides.
This startling light.
Marie Curie and Albert Einstein Hike in Engadine
Before first we met, M. Einstein let it be
known he admired my scientific work,
my discoveries. When he came to Paris
in the spring of 1913, I invited him
and Mileva to my flat on quai de Bethune,
near the Seine and the pont Sully,
just across the river from my laboratory
at the Sorbonne, where I said
I’d be pleased to take him.
One evening, after dinner, he told us
we must visit him in Switzerland
and hike the upper Engadine trail.
His voice was half wild with excitement,
so intent he was upon persuading us
of the mountains’ beauty.
That summer, rucksack on my back,
as I looked with wonder at those soaring
granite spires, I couldn’t stop myself
from thinking of Pierre, my Pierre,
and how he would have first looked
down, at Etan–a doll village our girls
might have fashioned–nestled in a deep,
green woods. Slowly, in his way,
he would have gazed up to the jagged
peak half hidden by shreds of cirrus clouds.
At last, as if dreaming, I saw him drop
to his knees and cup the tiny, star-shaped
wildflowers in his hands, murmuring
their names, as if calling to them.
For the first time in years, I felt myself
beginning to weep. “Ah,” I said to Albert,
my breath coming in hard little gasps,
“the trail grows steep.” For a time
I couldn’t speak more, as if I’d found
myself pierced by some towering stone.
When little by little peace entered my poor
heart again, I listened with care to Albert,
who was in the middle of a physics lesson.
“Phzzt,” he said. “Like that. You hold it
in your hand, and then it is gone.
Transformed,” he called into the wind.
“Merely transformed, like Marie’s precious radium.”
Dr. Tobe Attends MME. Curie on Her Deathbed
“Mme. Curie can be counted among the eventual victims of the radioactive bodies she and her husband discovered.”
-Professor Regaud, present at Sancellemoz, where Marie Curie died.
In Paris, a team of celebrated doctors
diagnosed tubercular lesions and sent
the poor woman on her last journey,
to my sanatorium in the Savoy mountains.
Our x-rays show no evidence of lung disease.
They were fools not to see the symptoms
blood tests confirmed: extreme pernicious
anemia, manifest in fever, chills
and a shocking pallor of the skin.
For hours, her younger daughter
holds the dying woman’s hand
and whispers promises she knows
she cannot keep, calling her stay
with us a “holiday” which she’ll
return from fully cured.
The halls are full of whispers,
people stricken at the thought
the deathwatch for the eminent
Marie Curie has begun.
I pause at a window, to see
that clouds veil our splendid
view of Mont Blanc.
The thought brings me a peculiar
sadness, as if a storm might gather
and add to the fervor and gloom.
The older daughter, a noted scientist
herself, has just arrived with her husband.
I hear that together, they have recently laid
bare the inner workings of the atom,
these two young people weeping in the hall.
We can do nothing now but monitor
her decline and ease her suffering.
Holding the thermometer in a trembling
hand, she insists on reading the mercury
herself, noting that for the first time
in many days, her temperature
is finally falling. She looks toward
the open window with a serene face.
“You see,” she whispers,
“it is the air, the pure air.”
Young Eve kisses her hand
and assures her mother
this is the sign she will
soon be well again.
But in such cases, the lessening
of fever always precedes death.
Through the night, as we take turns
sitting with her, even in her final dreams
she ponders scientific work, restlessly
murmuring words familiar to her late
research: “actinium,” “centrifugation,”
and whole sentences too faint to hear,
but rising on the final word as
question after question.
I listen in amazement, a witness
to her determination not to perish
without a gallant struggle.
But soon after dawn, when pure
unfiltered sunlight fills the room,
she slips away, her last deep sigh
echoing and shifting the air
into plateaus of light and shadow
such as I have never seen
and will never see again.
The fancy apartment building near the shore, a gleaming white tower with black balconies, suddenly transforms into a pinched gray hulk scarred with graffiti. Single-family homes nearby start doing the same, their green lawns flickering into dusty lots. I glance at what was, a few moments ago, a water tower, but in its place stands a pile of brown rubble. This calls for fast action. I click on the utilities button and the demolition button, and my cursor changes into a tiny bulldozer that I aim at the rubble. Click: blam! I race back to utilities, click on “water structures” and choose “water tower.” I swing back to the site, click and watch as a new water tower appears.
I click on the underground view, verify that the new tower is hooked up to the water system; the parched areas of light brown gradually turn blue. When I return to the surface, the neighborhood is already starting to rebuild. To my relief I see that a new apartment building, this one in red brick with bay windows, has just popped into sight.
This is great fun, though not without the unease that comes from doing something that goes against the grain. For nearly twenty years, ever since buying a boxy Kaypro IV for my writing, I have steadfastly regarded computers as working tools, dismissing the gaming world as the proper turf of Gen-X slackers – no place, certainly, for an adult with work to do. It was only last year that I finally got a machine with a sound card and CD-ROM, mostly because it has become nearly impossible to find one without these things. The mania for multimedia has always puzzled me. Haven’t we always had natural multimedia, our eyes and ears ready to gratify us plenty at the appropriate time – that is, when the computer is off and we’re not working?
The animated city on my screen is proof that our deepest desires run counter to our deliberate choices. It’s not the rehearsed speech that reveals the soul but the Freudian slip. Not the firm handshake but the quavering voice and averted eyes. My superego might be gratified whenever I’m clattering away in WordPerfect, but my sullen, persistent id seems most at ease when no one is looking and a simulated city fills my screen. My Freudian cyberslip is SimCity 3000, and it is hardly a new vice. Despite my long-standing insistence that computer fun be rigorously subordinated to computer work, this weakness dates back to the Pleistocene days of SimCity Classic. Sound card or no sound card, SimCity has always been one computer game – the only computer game – that has seemed to me worth playing. Now I mark out a residential zone in green and watch, mesmerized, as tiny houses and yards pop into view. I can do this for hours, suspending my precious work in favor of the deep, hypnotic timelessness of barely conscious play.
What horrible truth lies beneath so blatant a betrayal of deliberate self-image and best intentions? If ancient Athens had developed multimedia computers, Socrates might have insisted – to everyone’s irritation – that the unexamined game is not worth playing. It’s probably true that all games should be examined, and closely. Psychologists and anthropologists tell us that play offers a telling key to our deepest natures, and who am I to argue? As I click a marina into place, it occurs to me that something must be going on here.
A middle-aged man’s addiction to SimCity is not, at first glance, terribly reassuring. Megalomania is a distinctly possible cause if you find yourself hooked on watching tiny people make their way through a city that is under your complete and exclusive control. Given that these tiny people depend on their “mayor” – on you – for their very existence, SimCity might seem an ideal pastime for a frustrated control freak, a small person playing a very big God. Indeed, the box copy for the latest version calls the game “The Ultimate Power Trip.” The documentation breezily invokes the underbelly of gamesmanship when it urges the user to “get creative and unlock that shady Machiavellian side of yourself that rarely gets to let loose.” Clearly the game is marketed as an adolescent fantasy, a sullen teen’s chance to reassert a measure of power in the face of an unjust grounding – or simply the injustice of living with loser parents in the heart of Dorkville, U.S.A. There’s even a special button (its icon a wicked smiley face) with which the player can deliberately subject a city to a host of disasters, including fires, earthquakes, locusts and UFO attacks. The potential for nasty revenge fantasies is unmistakable. Dad is a clueless doofus, and you’re so not going to that party tonight, but you can fire up the family Pentium and let loose a tornado on London. At least there’s that.
But even Machiavelli has to keep an eye on the polls. As the documentation warns you, the tiny people in your city – they’re called “Sims” – “can unelect you if they are unhappy with your mayoral decisions.” Playing the game successfully means pleasing those Sims. “If they are happy, your city will prosper.” That promise of an “ultimate power trip” may pull you in, but it’s the solicitude you develop toward those tiny people that will keep you playing. As I place a museum in a lackluster residential neighborhood and the Sims cheer, it occurs to me that having a sound card is not so bad after all. Those Sims really wanted that museum. I have made them happy; my city should prosper.
There’s a lot of history in that tiny, simulated cheer. A city is – has always been – a tangible embodiment of desire, an icon of the human propensity to want things. The ancient storytellers knew this. There was no desire in Eden and therefore no real people – only a couple of bipedal animals, blissful but essentially bovine, living in the antithesis of a city. When people started to become people – when they started to want things, like forbidden fruit – their presence in Eden was no longer possible. Expulsion from the garden was tantamount to being frog-marched into the city, where desire and remorse are locked in eternal struggle.
When human desire is inappropriate or unattainable, we call it tragedy. This notion, too, is inextricably bound up with the idea of the city. The oldest Bible stories originated when urban life was first getting established in the Fertile Crescent, and you’d think that storytellers along the Tigris and the Euphrates would be touting their new way of life, this latest thing. Instead, they see the city as a morally ambiguous innovation, a mixed blessing at best. Abel the shepherd is murdered by his bad brother, Cain the farmer. In places like the Fertile Crescent, agriculture requires irrigation, and irrigation requires a concentration of workers. Agriculture also demands a market, a concentration of eaters. To be fully human is to have blood on your hands and a mark on your head – to be a farmer who can no longer live in the middle of nowhere, a settled man, a city dweller. The storytellers cannot resist pressing the point. Banished to the land of Nod, Cain slinks off and commits that most human of deeds: in the archaic language of the King James Version, “he builded a city.”
Those “old” ways, the nomadic life of a shepherd, were already starting to seem better. If a lost garden and the world’s first range war (Abel’s last words could well have been “Don’t fence me in!”) failed to invoke a potent nostalgia for preurban days, the earliest SimCity scenario in Western tradition certainly drove it home. The Babylonian Sims decide to found a great city to “make us a name,” and chief among their wants is a tower that will “reach unto heaven.” The allseeing Gamester knows that what they really want is to escape human limitations. “Now nothing will be restrained from them,” he coolly observes, “which they have imagined to do.” Such rampant hubris calls for fast action: God clicks his mouse, the Babylonians discover that they can no longer talk to one another and the population is dispersed.
All subsequent urban history can be seen as an endless game of catch-up, a desperate attempt to correct Babel by building cities that would not evoke loss and regret. This hope of redemption-the possibility of a new or a renewed city as the best possible replacement for a lost garden – is deeply embedded in our psyches. The same impulse is also the origin of being civil, of getting along. Large-scale cooperation began with urban projects: the irrigation system, the city wall, the palace, the temple. The arts developed side by side with the impulse to create great cities. The specialization of labor that cities made possible was necessary for the very existence of builders, artists and craftspersons, who took their turns erecting the exemplary city, the city that would last. Memphis, Nineveh, Babylon, Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople – each made its contribution to the lexicon of urban dreams. Modern cities still illustrate this impulse toward the monumental, this desire to move some dirt or pile up some stones to “make us a name” and express civic pride. It’s not so big a leap, really, from the Hanging Gardens to Central Park, from the Parthenon to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The ideal city has never strayed far from human dreams. David captured Zion, and Solomon built it into Jerusalem, the Holy City. From the Holy City came St. John’s New Jerusalem, Augustine’s City of God, Bunyan’s Celestial City and Puritan Boston – all variations of the City on the Hill. In the secularization of the human imagination that has occurred since the Middle Ages, such urban fantasies have assumed an inevitable irony even as they retain something of their power. How many can negotiate L.A.’s freeways unmindful of a perverted dream – all these concrete ribbons scarring the City of Angels? Although you might feel far from the City of Brotherly Love as you vainly seek a place to park near Independence Hall, it will dawn on you that an old Quaker vision lies somewhere beneath the narrow streets and that huge cop telling you to move on. Thread your way through any downtown and you’re negotiating someone’s dream, even if the dream has disappeared or faded or eschewed the spiritually grandiose in favor of the down-to-earth considerations of topography and commerce. The Motor City, the Rubber City, the Mile-High City, the Steel City – America abounds with places where somebody’s dream remains embalmed in a name. Look upon us, all ye nations. You want cars, tires, thin air, pig iron? Well, you’ve come to the right place: this is the city for that.
Sometimes getting back to the land seems like the best dream of all. An old tradition, stretching back through Romantic celebrations of the Lake District and Virgil’s praise for gentleman farming in the Georgics all the way to Sodom and Gomorrah, sees the city as worse than Babel – a den of iniquity and a soulless fleshpot. This image, powerfully present when I was growing up in small-town Ohio, seemed confirmed when we read with horror about Kitty Genovese, beaten to death in New York City while her neighbors looked on. But the pastoral distrust of the city has always been a form of social commentary, a coded belief in the possibility of a good city. The national outcry at Genovese’s passive neighbors was not so much against the city as against the perverted city, the city gone bad. It was the city, after all, that gave rise to the very notion of heroism – a fact brought home with startling clarity after the World Trade Center attack. Contemporary popular culture might extol the rogue hero, the rootless Rambo who works alone, but some of the earliest heroes in Western myth were solid citizens. Indeed, their heroic stature was inseparable from their solicitude for their cities.
This fact suggests redemptive possibilities for a SimCity addict, particularly a middle-aged one who has not been grounded or stripped of the car keys on a Saturday night. The Sumerian Gilgamesh, strongman of Uruk, undertakes a humbling journey as penance for bullying its citizens and returns a better mayor. When Odysseus crawls back to Ithaca after the Trojan War and finds his Sims in a state of moral and social chaos, he makes a few quick clicks of the mouse, puts his city in order and resumes his rightful role as a responsible mayor. Oedipus and Thebes are inseparable, too, the hero’s past sins the cause of the city’s present plagues. The Theban Sims come to see Oedipus as a well-meaning but intemperate mayor, whose much-vaunted intelligence is compromised by pride and arrogance. He recovers something of his former dignity, however, by blinding and banishing himself for the good of his city. Pious Aeneas did everything for the good of his Sims, whether those Sims past in Troy or those Sims future in Rome. He even gave up the beautiful queen Dido, who let down her own Carthaginian Sims by falling for the big lug.
These are all, in one way or another, stories of urban boom and bust, ambition and regret. Uruk’s troubles ceased when Gilgamesh returned as a sadder but wiser mayor. Ithaca had fallen into mob rule as Penelope’s suitors ate her out of house and home, but Odysseus showed up and saved the game. When Oedipus stumbled offstage and took his curse with him, Thebes got a fresh start. Aeneas roused himself from Dido’s bed, and from that point on it was Carthage down, Rome up. In life, as in SimCity, no city can remain powerful or envied or exemplary forever because people are involved. The Holy City had the most auspicious start imaginable, but before long the northerners split off and set up their own capital, their own Holy City at Shechem, because that was what they wanted. When Christians began spreading their message, they saw the first Holy City as a site of unbelief and death, in dire need of a fresh start. God would surely establish a New Jerusalem, and it would be utterly different from the old one.
Like those whiny Sims, real people want their own cities – or, failing that, cities recast to reflect their own vision. To put it more simply, people want. For every Athens there’s a Sparta, eyeing its soft neighbor with wolf-like avarice. As if reacting against the disturbing urban mix of dream and nightmare, the Greeks tried to freeze the cycle by replacing real cities with ideal ones. Wherever Alexander’s army rolled through, a new city was staked out in a rectilinear grid, the Greek measure of truth and beauty, complete with gymnasium, theater and agora. The Romans tried to do the same, but like many a SimCity player, they overreached badly. It was on their watch that the great Mediterranean cities-Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Rome itself – became unmanageable, too vast and unwieldy for the promotion of either life or liberty, let alone happiness. Those massive blocks of walk-up flats with shops on the ground floor that you still see in older American downtowns were a Roman invention-and a Roman regret. The golden age, as Ovid lined it out, predated the technology on which Roman cities were based.
Given its dense concentration of poor forked creatures whose desires are doomed to clash, the city is also a macrocosm of the individual, rent by conflicting dreams and nagging ambivalence. We always want more, and sometimes we want opposites. An aggregate of us will want more in multiple, and in this sense, every city is a reenactment of Babel’s ambition and Babel’s shame. But the dream of the city persists. This year’s ballot contains a bond issue for a new convention center. Let’s join hands and reach for the skies, even though we’ll be at each other’s throats in a few months. Let’s “make us a name” and be as a shining example unto the nations, at least for a while.
Every SimCity is an ideal city, a site of pure subjectivity. The city you end up with will be a projection of nothing but you, your sublimity and goofiness included. Choose your terrain, alter the landscape in accordance with whatever inner vision satisfies you, select the basic architectural style you want and start zoning. Whatever happens will be the result of your choices. The game offers an odd mix of vulnerability and power, and it is deeply satisfying.
It also feels like a remembrance. When I was little, I knew that our small Ohio town was not a city. A city was a big place like Toledo, where you went to see something out of the ordinary, like the zoo or the art museum. I assumed that a city like Toledo was where most people went to live after they became grown-ups. For this reason it didn’t occur to me that Toledo had any children actually living in it. All those kids at the museum and the zoo seemed a lot like me, and I figured that they had been driven in from small towns like mine.
Convinced that I would be a city dweller when I grew up, I practiced living as one. The prototype of my SimCity addiction was the hours I spent building play cities on the uneven concrete floor of our basement, with streets neatly chalked in and scraps of two-by-fours for buildings. I raided my brother’s HO-scale train layout for the proudest structures in these towns: the “Plasticville” signal tower, ranch house and train station. Tootsietoy cars cruised the streets, got filled up at thimble gas pumps and sat in neat rows at the inevitable drive-in Cinerama on a propped-up baking sheet. I eventually outgrew that basement-floor city, but not the urban dream. In school I’d sneak pieces of graph paper out of my notebook and draw cities in isometric perspective, not unlike the images that appear on a SimCity screen. An especially boring class resulted in a margin-to-margin megalopolis of Babels, an overdeveloped monstrosity in which every square foot soared straight up, like Hong Kong.
Maps of real cities, geometries in yellow, red and blue, were equally appealing. By the time I was ten, I knew the general layout of every city with a major league baseball team, especially the location of the ballpark. These maps reinforced my sense of the city as a place where unusual things happened, where grown-ups gathered to experience life at its best. For a while I considered a major league team to be the sine qua non of any “real” city. Toledo – the Oz and Gotham of my earliest years-got demoted to a big town, replaced by those massive conglomerates of humanity where anything could happen and every desire, including major league baseball, could be met: Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis. When the Giants and Dodgers left for California, I thought New York had somehow lost two-thirds of its population. Chicago still had two teams, a sign of its unimaginable, Rome-like immensity.
When I was eleven and my father took me to an Indians game, Cleveland did not disappoint. We parked in the suburbs and took a bus into town, my first descent into a real urban canyon, where the orientation shifts from horizontal to vertical as buildings blot out the sky. I can still see, from the high ground, Cleveland spread out before us, vast and smoggy, as we rode in from Parma. There were other glimpses of urban greatness. Our family once drove south through Cincinnati on a camping trip to the Smokies, passing within sight of Crosley Field and funneling down between endless buildings under a shrinking sky, until we reached the Ohio River bridge and crossed into Kentucky, the huge city suddenly behind us. When we crept through Indianapolis in the days before interstates on our way to spend Thanksgiving with grandparents in Illinois, the scale was just as overwhelming. The city I got to know best as a child was Columbus, where my older brother went to college – and Columbus seemed plenty big, too. I soon got cured of my major league snobbery. Baseball or no baseball, Columbus and Indianapolis were surely two of those special places where anything could happen.
I suspect that each of us has a profound identification with one city or another, with a particular place that fits our notion not of what a city should be but of what it actually is. The city in our head reflects who we are, our potential and our limits. As a child of what later became the Rust Belt, I was captivated when I first saw San Francisco, even as I realized that something about its beauty was utterly foreign to me. I find, increasingly as I progress into middle age, that I’m pretty much a human embodiment of Cleveland, though I could also be Pittsburgh or Buffalo without too much trouble. I could not be Denver or Phoenix in a million years. Their unreal landscapes do not feel like places where people should naturally be. I am no Paris, nor was meant to be: in my brief time there, its elegance constantly made me feel large and clumsy. Chicago and Los Angeles and New York are definitely too vast, and multiple baseball teams are more than I can quite grasp. I live just outside Washington, D.C., but I can’t be Washington, either. It is simply not a Rust Belt kind of place – and besides, there’s no baseball team. Familiarity, however, lies less than an hour up the road: I think I could be Baltimore.
But that’s another thing about cities: they clarify what we are not. That aspect of a city that is not you is precisely what transfixes you when you’re there. In London, nearly every block south and east of the British Museum contains buildings far older than anything in the Midwest (except the gravel in the parking lots). During my time there, I kept stopping to ponder timeworn pavements and the uneven ripples in antique windows. How could a Cleveland sort of guy not marvel at such things? The one aspect of New York that feels most alien to me is the churning energy of its sidewalks, a tide of people so unrelenting and powerful that you are aware of only two choices: join in or disappear. Feeling myself being buoyed along by those crowds is, of course, what I most love about New York.
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities may be high art, but its mesmerizing cavalcade of imagined, surreal cities touches on a dream common to us all. The old cities – the ones with centuries on them – invoke collective desires that continue to haunt us. The Jerusalem of the imagination remains the Holy City, a place where Babel reversed itself and God is said to have descended to earth. The imagined Alexandria is still the essence of cosmopolitanism, the Pharos blotting out the sky as Greek and Jew and Egyptian barter in a marketplace shaded by a great library brimming with the wisdom of three continents. Rome is still the Eternal City, seat of Caesar after Caesar and then pope after pope, a chain unbroken through the ages. Paris is still the City of Light, where a thousand painters, whether schmaltzy or sublime, try to capture that certain slant of light on the stonework of the Pont Neuf. For most Westerners, Beijing remains the Forbidden City, culturally and politically inscrutable. And for English speakers, London remains the city of heartbreakingly beautiful language, its streets still haunted by Chaucer and Milton and Shakespeare. These cities are as invisible as Calvino’s, and yet their power is palpable, as only the power of an idea can be.
If cities lull you into a kind of dream state, you might not be especially good at playing SimCity, despite the hours you spend at it. The fact is, this lifelong daydream of cities dooms my play to an impracticality that causes water pumps to go dry and power plants to blow up. Although I want to please my Sims, they usually end up leaving in droves, unhappy victims of my desires.
For one thing, my style of play is much too passive. A simulated city has to grow to survive: the documentation is quite clear on this. The Sims keep demanding more water, more housing, more jobs, better transportation – and the smart player gives them what they want. However, I prefer to watch rather than act. After zoning a city, I sit back and explore, zooming in to cruise the streets, follow the traffic and ponder new juxtapositions of this building and that one. Transfixed by shapes, colors and textures, I miss serious problems until there’s nothing to do but watch my city shrink into rubble.
Then, too, my cities always embody aesthetics rather than practicality. Despite – or maybe because of – my Rust Belt origins, I’ll zone as small an industrial area as possible. Those tiny, burgeoning factories are essential to city growth, but I just don’t like how they look. I’ll invariably load a city with expensive amenities appropriate to a vast, unrestricted Toledo – museums, libraries, marinas, zoos, ballparks, of course – long before the population and the budget can sustain them. SimCity also lets you include famous real-world landmarks, an irresistible feature. I cannot keep from endowing an embryonic city, modest tax base and all, with a Pharos of Alexandria standing bravely on its shore. I’ve watched many captivating cities, their leafy squares graced with Parthenons and Chicago Art Institutes, shrivel up before their time.
I place parks and stadiums as if there’s no tomorrow – and as a result, there is no tomorrow. While I’m planting expensive trees like a frenzied Johnny Appleseed, filling every available space with greenery, the Sims can’t get to work because the streets are crumbling or the electricity runs out and there’s no money to replace the power plant. This is one beautiful city, I tell myself as I zoom in to observe a tiny St. Paul’s Cathedral from every possible angle. Oedipus, however, is not the only mayor who failed, disastrously, to see. Before long the water pipes burst from age, or unemployment soars because there aren’t enough factories to support the population. This was one beautiful city, but those damned Sims just kept wanting – and worse, they wanted the wrong things. A benevolent mayor like me will always disable the “random disasters” feature, but my cities die anyway. I darkly conclude that the Sims just didn’t know what was good for them. So what if they were jobless? They could have spent their idle afternoons in the art museum that I so graciously provided. Who needs electricity when the central square contains the Eiffel Tower?
Why would a middle-aged Luddite get hooked on a computer game? And why this computer game? Because we are born to die. We huddle in our cities and oscillate between pride and fear, going about our business with only fleeting premonitions of the fragility of it all. This fragility is what SimCity and its real-world counterparts can teach you. There will be pomp and arrogance if you’re lucky, but there will always be an end to things, too. When Carthage loses out to Rome in the struggle for supremacy on the Mediterranean, it winds up having salt poured on the site so that Cain the farmer will never again be able to feed a population there. The flow of the Euphrates shifts, and Babylon is left high and dry, the Hanging Gardens transformed into the Hanging Desert. The mouth of the Cayster River silts up, and Ephesus, proud home of Diana’s temple, loses its port and becomes an overgrown ruin. The demand for foreign cars skyrockets, and the Motor City loses an appalling percentage of its tax base. Synthetic rubber comes along, and Akron, the Rubber City, doesn’t make tires anymore. Galveston sinks a ton of oil money into improving its port, and Baltimore is forced to create a touristy Harborplace just to keep afloat. It’s the oldest of stories: Rome up, Carthage down. Or, if you prefer, Houston and Phoenix up, Cleveland and Buffalo down. Reliable weather, unsalted soil and money to burn will beat lake-effect snow and unemployment every time.
Although SimCity replicates what Jane Jacobs called the “death and life of American cities” to an extreme, my cities always follow the reverse order. My current city starts returning to the dust from which it came soon after the power plant blows. As always, entropy kicks in, owing to no particular disaster except my inept performance as mayor. The background music turns mournful: a violin keening the audio equivalent of urban decay and human regret. When I finally give up and click to exit, I opt not to save this game. Why save a blighted landscape that is forty thousand dollars-or “Simoleans,” as the game calls them-in debt? Little is left standing in the vast expanse of empty blocks but an art museum, a science center and the mayor’s house – three “special buildings” not subject to ordinary decay and thus fated to remain, Ozymandias – like monuments to a mayor’s impracticality.
There will be other cities, of course, bigger and better ones that will probably be saddled with even more cultural amenities for the Sims to cheer, if only briefly, as they await the inevitable downturn. There will be new landscapes, new street plans, new combinations of buildings and zones – new games for creating new places where anything might happen before change sets in. The Babylonians, forced to abandon that God-damned ziggurat, were scattered to the winds, but in another game they regrouped, marched west and conquered Jerusalem. In yet another game, the Persians roared out of Persepolis and trounced Babylon yet again. This in turn prompted the game in which Jerusalem got rebuilt, transforming itself from brown dirt and gray ruins into the Holy City that remains central to the Western mind.
Every historical city is a kind of simulation, a dream shared by a particular group of people who came together in a particular time and place. I say “is” because once a city inscribes its dream on the collective imagination, it never goes away. For this reason, when those overreaching Romans loaded the CD and began to play, the destruction of Jerusalem was both total and illusory. For this reason, too, the World Trade Center will always remain in the mind’s eye, twin towers of shadowy absence jutting proudly into the open sky. City dreams, like ghosts, have a way of sticking around, their presence proof that fragility and impermanence are prerequisite to that deeper continuity of the human spirit. The cities that we know will be transformed into – and joined by – other cities. The odd thing is the persistence with which we will remember them all, even the ones that no longer exist; they stand waiting to be recycled into templates for imagined futures. Deep down, aren’t we always expecting a new city – our ideal city – to lie just ahead, poised to break into view as the bus crests a hill on Cleveland’s south side or the taxi swings onto the Bay Bridge or we glimpse lower Manhattan through the smudgy window of a train that is moving too slowly to suit us?
A Brief History of the Flood
This story is not currently available online.
I’m ankle-deep in water, wearing Dad’s new rubber duck boots. Mom’s lying alone in their bed, blanket up to her ears. “Mom,” I say, “there are nine reasons you shouldn’t commit suicide. Number one: It’ll mean you’re a quitter. Number two: Dad will have won.”
Poetry Feature: Ann Townsend
Featuring the poems:
- St. Veronica’s Trials
- The Home Arts
Interview with Sandra Cisneros
Interviewer: What is your definition of a short story?
Cisneros: I don’t know what the definition of a short story is, and I don’t even care to answer that question. That’s something somebody in academia would think about. I just want to tell a story, and if people listen, and if it stays with you, it’s a story. For me, a story’s a story if people want to hear it; it’s very much based on oral storytelling. And for me, a story is a story when people give me the privilege of listening when I’m speaking it out loud, whether I’m reading it in a banquet hall for a convention and it’s the waitresses and busboys who are looking up from their jobs, or whether it’s across an ice house table (ice house is an outdoor bar here in San Antonio), or whether it’s a group of my girlfriends when we’re having soup. Its power is that it makes people shut up and listen, and not many things make people shut up and listen these days. They remember it, and it stays with them without their having to take notes. They wind up retelling it, and it affects their lives, and they’ll never look at something the same way again. It changes the way they think, in other words.
Interviewer: What about a story makes it memorable?
Cisneros: Well, it’s obviously meeting some need that you have in your life. It’s memorable because it makes you either laugh or cry. If a story’s really good, it does both. Sometimes it’s not the story’s fault if it doesn’t stay with you, because you’re too old or too young for it. I feel that, in the Native American sense, the story cycles; there are different times of your life that a story may come to you. You don’t remember it, and then you hear. it again or read it again later in your life, and because of what’s happened in your life it’s distinct from the first time you heard it. The story speaks to you then. We may say, “Oh, that story didn’t do anything for me,” instead of saying, “I’m not ready for that story.” We blame the author or the story itself; but I really think that you have to hear a good story at the right time in your life.
Interviewer: And then it will resonate.
Cisneros: Yes, because it was a story that was necessary to you.
Interviewer: Do you classify yourself in a particular way: minimalist, magical realist, postmodernist? It would seem to me that you classify yourself maybe more as a storyteller.
Cisneros: I don’t classify myself as any of those things because I don’t know what that means, and I don’t have to know. It’s not my job to be classifying my stories.
Interviewer: What was the process by which you came to understand what your particular gift or stamp would be?
Cisneros: You learn things in spirals, you know, and I learned it when I was in graduate school. I’ve written and talked a lot about that—when we were in seminar, and I was so intimidated when we were talking about houses and I realized I didn’t have a house like my class-mates. But instead of that causing me to run out of the room and quit graduate school in terror because I was a working-class person with very privileged classmates, it caused me eventually to become angry and to write from that place of difference. Now I realize that place of difference is my gift. I ask my students to make a list of ten things that make you different from anyone in this room; ten things that make you different from anyone in your community; in the United States; in your family; in your gender. And we go on and on, making these lists of things that make us different. And of course the list could be a hundred and ten things.
Interviewer: You write poetry, short stories and now a novel. I’m wondering how working on this novel has changed your writing.
Cisneros: Every book changes my writing because I’m always trying to do something I didn’t do before. I try to do what’s hard for me, what I haven’t done in the past. Sometimes it’s not apparent to a reader because they don’t know the sequence of how a collection of stories is put together. If they knew, they would perhaps see how each story builds on the next one and how, taken as a whole, each book builds on the next. Writing poetry helps me to write my fiction; each thing helps the other. I know when I was writing Woman Hollering Creek, each story was a literary hurdle. So, for example, I did a monologue; well, then in the next piece I would try not to do the same thing over again. I’d say, okay, I already did that, so how can I make this different? It was a monologue, too, but I would try to set up some situation where I could do something new, and it was usually influenced by whom I was reading at the time. If I was reading Juan Rulfo, the Mexican writer, and I liked how he did something, I would try it. With my other favorite, Merce Rodereda, the Catalan author, I liked how she could capture a whole situation in a very tiny monologue, just one character speaking, and I would say, I’m going to do my own version of that. There was always a little task for myself, just to keep myself in literary shape and to teach myself to do something I hadn’t done. I tried to do something that I had. to learn from other writers.
Interviewer: You look at it from the perspective of craft.
Cisneros: Yeah, Ill say, okay, I like this story when I’m reading it. But just to say I like it is very lazy. You have to go back and look under the hood and say, why does this story work so well? What is it that I admire about it? How can I use something like this in what I’m writing? That’s why it’s important for me to be reading when I’m writing a book. Not so much that I’m taking writers’ styles, but I’m learning craft. Every writer I admire is my teacher. If you look at it, and if you care to read carefully enough and to read and reread a text, you teach yourself something about craft.
Interviewer: So doing the novel was part of that continuous learning process.
Cisneros: It’s difficult for me to have a large story, a very large story—a novel is a large story. I’m used to writing and doing these little miniature paintings. Now I’ve got this huge canvas, and it’s hard for me to look at it as a whole. Right there I’ve set up a task that’s very difficult for me, to make a canvas that moves and is focused on plot and action. I’m not a plot-oriented writer, so it’s hard for me to handle many, many characters. And what kind of point of view can I do? It’s very different from House on Mango Street, where I had one simple narrator who was narrating all the events, and everything was seen through her eyes. Now I’ve got three main characters and lots of little tributaries from these three rivers. How do I get all of these threads? How do I cast all of those nets without them tangling up? I don’t have a solution for this; I’m learning as I go, and I keep looking at other writers who might teach me. Sometimes they don’t help me at all because I’m not telling the same kind of story. Maybe that’s why the book is taking me so long. I’m writing and writing and writing and then realize, well, a lot of this isn’t even going to appear in the book.
Interviewer: Isn’t that difficult?
Cisneros: If the book was easy, then I would know I was spinning my wheels. I could do another House on Mango Street in that voice and just go on with her life, and everybody would be really happy because they want to know what happened to that character. But I don’t want to do that because that child voice comes easily to me; it’s a voice that I have to be careful with. If I’m going to use it, I have to do something a little bit different.
Interviewer: You’ve immersed yourself much more deeply in this work, the novel, for a much longer time, and you’re drawing from personal life in some respects. For example, your father.
Cisneros: A lot of characters, like my father, other people’s fathers, all merged into the one father character. Yes.
Interviewer: What insights has that brought about that relationship to the father, both personally and culturally?
Cisneros: The only reason we write—well, the only reason why I write; maybe I shouldn’t generalize—is so that I can find out something about myself. Writers have this narcissistic obsession about how we got to be who we are. I have to understand my ancestors—my father, his mother and her mother—to understand who I am. It all leads back to the narcissistic pleasure of discovering yourself. In writing this book, I have to do a lot of deep meditation into stories I couldn’t possibly know, that I have to go back and invent. It’s like an archaeologist discovering little scraps of preserved fabric, and you have to re-create what they were wearing by looking in a microscope at little fibers. That’s how I feel, as if all I have is tatters, a name and very sketchy things about ancestors—sometimes not even a name, especially for the women; they’re so anonymous that a woman gets lost within a generation or two. In most cases, even if you knew them you don’t know their last names. Things get lost very quickly. And here I have these people with no stories to go on except what has survived a generation of hearsay.
"Oh, she was very mean." "Oh, she never came downstairs." "Oh, she pinched me."
Little, innocuous things, and you have to build a whole character from that. Why is the grandmother so mean to her grandchildren? You can think about that for a long time. That’s all you need to create a story: that the grandmother was mean and that she liked to be served and couldn’t get out of bed for fifteen years. You’ve got enough imagination to fill in all the details. The nice thing is, you don’t know a lot. If you knew too much, then you could write autobiography, but who wants to do that? It’s not as interesting. Inventing!
Interviewer: You’ve mentioned that you see Mexico as a matriarchal society.
Cisneros: Yeah. It sounds kind of wacky because we think of it as a very macho society, but macho societies come from matriarchal cultures. What I’m always looking for—and I think every writer must look for this—is the thing that makes me different from other people on the planet. What makes me different from other Chicana writers or other women writers or other writers of the Southwest? When you start splitting hairs like that and really looking at what sets you apart even from members of your own family, that’s what you should be writing about because that’s something only you can write about, not even your twin or your partner. When I think about what makes me different, I’m always looking at my Mexican culture. Of course I like to write about love, but then I’ll ask, how is Mexican love different from American love? I’ll look at the Mexican models of love, and that leads me to the true Mexican love. True love in Mexico isn’t between lovers; it’s between a parent and a child. Mexico is a very intense culture of sons adoring their mothers, and this is why I claim that Mexican culture is matriarchal. Because the one constant, faithful, inviolable, holy love of loves—the love of your life—is not your wife or your lover; it’s your mother.
Interviewer: Isn’t that a tough act for the wife to follow?
Cisneros: That’s right. The wife never can compete with the mother. It’s no coincidence that Mexican culture used to embrace, in pre-Columbian times, maternal goddesses, the nurturers and symbols of fertility and power. The Virgin of Guadalupe is just another name for several of these female deities that are very powerful. Whatever bravado Mexican culture may have, its macho society; is created from a matriarchal culture. What’s fascinating is to see this incredible reverence and admiration and exaggeration of love between a mother and a son and between a father and a daughter.
Interviewer: So we see those triangles in the new book?
Cisneros: That’s what I’m looking at. My book is a love story, but it’s about a mother and a son, and a son and his daughter, because this, to me, is the archetypal Mexican love story.
Interviewer: Aren’t you being audacious by taking that revered grand-mother and depicting her as mean?
Cisneros: That’s exactly what happens. Chicana literature, just like women’s literature, any set group, creates its own sacred cows, and one of its sacred cows is the grandmother. In Chicana writing the love between a grandmother and a granddaughter is holier than the relationship between a mother and a daughter because the mother and daughter have to deal with the reality of the everyday, whereas the grandmother can be revered from afar. Especially if she’s dead, she becomes this mythic symbol in Chicana literature. But I hate when I see any kind of clicheé occurring in writing, so that’s why she’s a wonderful clicheé for me to throw rocks at.
Interviewer: It seems like a particularly feminist contribution. By de-mythologizing the grandmother, you leave more freedom for contemporary women to explore themselves without feeling that their lives must become a tribute to their grandmothers.
Cisneros: I guess that’s a stereotype of women’s literature, too, huh? To honor the grandmothers.
Interviewer: And the mothers, too, to an extent.
Cisneros: With Chicana writing, we have more problematics with the mother. But that hasn’t been written about because again we feel the taboo of criticizing our elders.
Interviewer: Laura Esquivel did, in Like Water for Chocolate.
Cisneros: She did, and that was good. That’s why it’s interesting. And Cynthia Kadohata in The Floating World also did a wonderful character of the evil grandmother. I guess I need to mention, for people who don’t know my book, that the novel is about an evil grandmother. The question I asked myself is, How did she turn evil? Why is this woman evil in the eyes of her grandchild and so wonderful in the eyes of the father, her son? Are we talking about the same character? How could it be that each one sees the same person in such an opposite light? I looked at my real grandmother, to whom I didn’t have such a violent reaction as does the character in the book, but that’s because I didn’t spend much time with her. But I’m taking all the stories of her from people who didn’t like her and putting them all together in this one character. When I began the book, I knew that I had a problem because I was feeling ungenerous with that character. But I made my peace with her; after writing this book for so long, I don’t dislike her anymore. I created her past so that I could understand how she became the per-son she is.
Interviewer: What did you learn about her character?
Cisneros: I knew that the book would be nearing its completion once I could understand why the grandmother was so terrible and once I for-gave her. In the process of writing the book, I knew that something very spiritual would happen, and I knew that I would understand the real-life grandmother on whom the character is based because the real-life grandmother is not as bad. My character is called the Awful Grandmother. My real-life grandmother is not that awful, but she was awful to a lot of other people, namely my mother, and of course I’m going to side with my mother. Though on the other hand, I’m hearing my mother’s version of the story, right? I was going to vindicate my mother, but during the writing, my grandmother became present in the book in a real way; she kind of took over the novel and started making herself less of a peripheral character and more of a central one. When I was writing the book, she would start appearing in my face. I’m not just speaking metaphorically; I mean literally. I would look in the mirror, and her face would be there, or I’d look in a photograph, and suddenly she would be moving into my jaw or into a furrow or into a squint in a way that I had never recognized before. What she told me was, “You may not like me, but I am you”—which is a horrible thing to realize. The character realizes that, too: “Oh, my God, I am she.” We are our ancestors, including the ones we don’t like. Like it or not, we fit into each other, like these nesting cups. Once I knew that as an author, then I could start being more generous with her as a character. She’s still awful, but I have more empathy, and I understand her. Therefore, the book took me to a real spiritual place and moved me from siding with my mother. Not necessarily that I side with my grandmother, but I’m kind of above both of them, and I can see them clearly.
Interviewer: How did your growth as an artist parallel and help spark the evolution of your political conscience? And how do you put the political into perspective within your own personal quest for spiritual illumination? Are there contradictions there, or is there a unity?
Cisneros: I feel like I’m a Buddhist revolutionary. I feel very Buddhist and very revolutionary at the same time. There are ways to be revolutionary without guns or violence. You can be a pacifist revolutionary. My weapon has always been language, and I’ve always used it, but it has changed. Instead of shaping the words like knives now, I think they’re flowers, or bridges. When we’re younger we react, and we don’t think about how language is creating more violence. We’re not aware as younger writers that our words can be bullets. Or maybe we’re conscious of it, but we’re conscious of it in a very rudimentary way. We don’t realize the spiritual resonance of language because at that point in our lives, we don’t realize that the spiritual encompasses everything. The older you get, the more power you have with language as a writer, which means that you have to be extra responsible for what you say, whether it’s in print or in front of a microphone, because those words can go out and kill or go out and plant seeds for peace. I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist thought, but the Buddhist thought came along with circumstances in my life. I don’t think that books are going to stay with you or that any kind of thought or philosophy is going to help you unless it comes hand in hand with the life lessons. The Buddhist thought came hand in hand with my acquaintance with my friend Jasna, in Sarajevo, and her silence for years because of the war and my inability to do anything, so many miles away, to help my friend; she was actually being held in a big city that was like a giant concentration camp. My own powerlessness drove me to finally speak when I was asked to do a speech for International Women’s Day.
Interviewer: You wrote about that in the New York Times.
Cisneros: I was silent for months because I was waiting for other people to speak. I thought there were many people more qualified than me, just this little writer living in Texas. But that is not right. If we think like that, then we won’t do anything, especially if we’re waiting for world leaders. They’re not going to take care of the world. We’re world leaders, too. We don’t think of that. Everybody that you come into contact with and everything that you do is going to have an effect. Not just everything you say, but everything you touch. You can act wisely, or you can act unwisely. Or you can do something. That goes back to the thing that makes us different from everyone else. The one thing that made me different from everyone else in my neighborhood was that I knew the address of someone in Sarajevo. That’s why I had been asked to speak at the International Women’s Day rally, and I could talk about one person and my powerlessness. Making that speech, which eventually was printed on the op-ed page of the New York Times, made me realize that I wasn’t powerless. I could talk. I could do a peace vigil, and peace vigils became very important in my life. The way I could make peace was to be peaceful. I could be very mindful and not forget my friend. I don’t have to talk about Jasna all the time as long as I know that everything I do is going to affect her. Not just meditating, but what do I have now that I didn’t have eleven years ago? I have money! A dollar is a lot in Bosnia. I could send her money every month. Fortunately, I can send it directly and know it’s affecting someone and not getting lost in a quagmire. I prefer to do things my own route, like that.
Interviewer: How do you think the evolution of your spiritual life changes your writing?
Cisneros: It changes the way I live in every aspect, and with every per-son who comes into my house, whether it’s construction people, workers, my assistants, my housekeeper, the characters in my books. I have to be very mindful and generous. I have to look deeply into each of my characters, into their pasts, into their souls, even if I don’t like them. I have to understand and have compassion for them.
Interviewer: I remember you saying to your students once that what they have to do to become a good writer is to become a good person.
Cisneros: Yes, you have to be a good human being, and that will help your writing a great deal. Someone once asked me how my writing had changed in the past couple of years, and I said that through my friend in Yugoslavia, caught in the war, it’s changed my way of writing and looking at human beings because I want to make peace with the people I’m most angry with. I have to, because of my friend, caught up in a war. There’s been a lot of anger toward men in my writing. It doesn’t mean that they don’t piss me off. Men still piss me off. But the difference is, I’m looking to find a solution, whereas before I just used to fight.
Interviewer: So now there’s a wholeness in your characters.
Cisneros: I hope so. I know that there’s an attempt now at reconciliation. If I was writing Woman Hollering Creek over again, or House on Mango Street, I would look very deeply into the male characters who are creating the violence in those books. I would go farther back, into how they became who they are, not to excuse them, but to understand them.
Interviewer: Do you think the novel gives you an opportunity to go more deeply?
Cisneros: Yes, I think so. By the time I was finishing Woman Hollering, the stories were straining the short-story genre. I’m not sure I know how to write a novel. When I talk to other people who write novels, they say they don’t know, either. They just invent it as they go along. I’ve never taken any fiction writing classes, so I don’t know how to write a short story either. I just kind of do it.
Interviewer: How important is it to explore outside your own art? Why is that interaction among artists important?
Cisneros: For me it’s been very helpful to go to art museums and art exhibits and concerts and dance, which is something I did a lot in graduate school because I could afford to. I’d see something, and I’d say, “Look what this artist is doing. How could I do that in my writing? This painting is using composition in an extraordinary way: it has a narrative to it. Where I go is from here to here to here. But this doesn’t go in the expected way that a narration would. How can I do that? At the time, I was just writing poetry. I kept asking myself those questions with things that I liked or that stayed with me. How could I use them in my writing? That’s how all those art forms began to teach me, and they sometimes taught me a lot more about writing than my workshop classes. They sustained me at a time when I really needed that spiritual nurturing. Now I tell my students, a solution for your story, if you’re stuck, is sometimes to leave the room and go to an art exhibit. Change the subject because if you get off the track, you will get on the track. That’s why I don’t like to work on things to completion, in one spiral. If it’s not working today, I put it away. It’ll find its time.
Interviewer: Receptivity keeps coming up in much of what you say—being receptive to what comes to you. Now that you’re having so much success, how do you negotiate the difference between the personal and the professional? How do you choose what to give your energies to so that you preserve that receptivity for the artist, yet do what you can in the outside world?
Cisneros:: I don’t know that I have the answer to that. If I did, I’d have more energy for my writing. I try to pick and choose what I’ll be most effective in. It’s been very hard for me. The MacArthur grant has given me a lot of publicity that has been wonderful in that people listen to what I say now, but it’s also been awful because it’s taken away my anonymity. Strangers come knocking on the door; people call me for assistance. I want to help everyone, but if I did, I’d never be home writing. My best friends, who are writers, don’t get letters from me. If I do write, it’s usually a little note.
Interviewer: How do you as an artist affect the political activist? What role does your work play in influencing the consciousness of other people?
Cisneros: When I was younger, I used to think that it didn’t have any effect, but I think that because all those issues are inside me already, that if I just write from that very deep place and if I take the writing far enough, all of those issues will come out anyway without me getting on a soapbox. The world becomes political just by me writing from my passions.
Interviewer: What would you have others understand about Sandra Cisneros?
Cisneros: A lot of people mistake the persona that I create in poetry and fiction with me. A lot of people claim to know me who don’t really know me. They know the work, or they know the persona in the work, and they confuse that with me, the writer. They don’t realize that the persona is also a creation and a fabrication, a composite of my friends and myself all pasted together. The real Sandra Cisneros isn’t going to be out dancing on tables; she’s going to be at a table, writing.
Sandra Cisneros, former recipient of a prestigious MacArthur grant, is the author of a number of books, including the novella The House on Mango Street, the short-story collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories and the poetry collections My Wicked Wicked Ways and Loose Woman. Her first novel, Caramelo, was published by Knopf.
I got disoriented on the prairie. Most of the roads were gravel, and only a few had signs. Nobody up there needed them. Tourists usually stuck to the interstate on their way up to Grangeville or down to the Lewiston Valley. Who knew where they headed after that. It was a big part of the country, lots of space under the sky, and it seemed like people were always headed somewhere else. I’d been like that when I was younger-a few months in Vegas, then Seattle, up to Alaska and then back down to California. I’d traveled the West like an old pioneer, and that was the place I’d stopped – the Camas Prairie, in Idaho. The rolling hills looked the same in every direction, or at least, they did to me.
“Go back to the suburbs,” my father-in-law would say. “There’s plenty of stucco houses down there for you to navigate by. Up here we use a couple newfangled things like, oh, I don’t know … north, south, east and west! You ever heard of those California?”
Most people called me Cal, but my father-in-law, he called me California, and sometimes I had to answer for the sins of an entire state. During that time, though, he was gentle, almost fatherly, and would just sigh and squeeze my shoulder without saying anything. We knew that words were flimsy. He’d talked a lot more after his wife passed, but that was just to fill in the spaces she left behind. It had been almost two years since, and none of us had expected another funeral so soon.
Henry and I drove out to one of his plots near Big Canyon. He thought the bluegrass might be ready to cut and stopped by to see if I wanted to drive out there and check. He’d been a champ through the whole ordeal. I told him that the best thing I could do was to keep busy and let Jil work through her own grief. She wouldn’t talk about it anyway, just sat around and stared at old pictures of the three of us. The day before, I’d come home from work and she’d picked off the tips of her fingernails and lined them in two neat rows on the coffee table.
“Jesus, honey!” I said. “Are you okay?”
She looked up with disgust as her eyes came into focus.
“Of course I’m not okay. Just go … go do something. I want to be alone,” she said and went back to staring at her fingernails.
Henry was my brother-in-law, and during this time he stopped in almost every day and took me on some farm errand or another. He was one of the only people I could tolerate being around, and that was because he didn’t try to say too much. We talked about farming and sports, but he never asked if I was okay or if there was anything he could do, and that’s the way I wanted it. The sympathy of that town was crushing me; people bringing food, helping out with chores, not bringing their children with them when they came to the house – it was too much.
We got out to the field after driving miles on a skinny dirt road that curved like a spine over hills covered with wheat, bluegrass and bright yellow canola fields. Behind the hundred-acre parcel of bluegrass, which wasn’t blue at all, but a deep, dull green, was Big Canyon – a place where everything fell in on itself and carved through the landscape for miles before opening up at the Clearwater River.
We parked, and Henry jumped out immediately and wandered into the bluegrass field. Then he pulled one of the heads off, broke some seeds loose and cradled them in the palm of his hand. I walked over slowly, taking in the view, and by the time I got there he was chewing on the seeds; I could tell he was deep in thought. Hank took farming real serious. He studied new techniques, played the market with his surplus grain and was always looking for new ways to improve their yield. He threw the leftover seeds down and spat.
“It’s too hot,” he said. “We’re gonna have to cut at night, or else some of the heads will shatter and we’ll lose a decent amount of seed.”
Henry said these things for my benefit. I’d grown up in Los Angeles and didn’t know shit about farming.
“We could start cutting tonight?” I suggested, looking for something to keep me out of the house until ten-thirty, when I had to get ready for my real job at the juvenile Detention Center down in Lewiston.
“Want to put in a couple hours out here with me before you head down to the valley?” he asked, knowing I’d say, Hell yes. Hank could do most everything himself but often pretended to need my help.
We decided to get started right away. He called his wife, Kathy, on the cell phone and asked her to tell Jil – which was a relief, because then I didn’t have to. We drove into town, got the swather, and I flagged in the truck, driving out front with a radio so I could warn Hank if any cars were coming. He chugged along behind, barely doing ten miles an hour.
The swather was used for cutting grass crops and seemed alive when it moved. The cab was raised a good four feet above the axle and resembled the shell of some giant insect. Out front was a ten-foot steel rod that ran horizontal to the ground and was covered with thousands of six-inch steel flanges. It looked like a giant row of teeth.
I pulled ahead once we got off the main road and parked on a rise so I could tune in to the college radio station in Moscow while Hank caught up. The sun was starting to sink, and there was a yellow glow on everything that illuminated a decaying barn in the distance. They were everywhere, barns from the turn of the century that had been cooked by the sun to a grayish-brown color and crumbled in on themselves. Jil and I used to take pictures of all the old relics of the prairie: half-buried tractors, burned-out grain silos and those beautiful dead barns. There was so much space up there that people just left things where they stood and moved on.
We got back to the field after what seemed like hours. I parked the truck and climbed into the swather, and we started cutting right off. We sat and stared out the oversized front windshield and listened to the Mariners game on the radio. I watched the bluegrass disappear as we rolled over it, piled in neat rows behind us.
When I went home at ten-thirty to get ready for work, Jil was lying fetal on the couch in front of the TV. There were several empty beer bottles on the coffee table, and she seemed out of it. I stood there in the half-light of the doorway staring at her for some time. She looked so beautiful to me, her matted auburn hair hanging over part of her face, wrinkled dress climbing up her smooth, pale thighs. It was almost too much to take.
I bent down to kiss her forehead, which wasn’t soft, but clenched like a fist. I wanted to touch her, to help her, but I couldn’t, and that was the worst part of all. Still, I wanted to do something, so I scooped her up in my arms and carried her toward the bedroom. As I tried to gently lay her in bed, I felt my back start to go out and dropped her. She bounced three or four times and rolled over without waking. I dragged myself to the shower in defeat and stood under the scalding hot massage stream until the water was lukewarm.
The drive down was always the worst part because I had to pass by the place, and I always looked to see if the skid marks were still there. After that it was okay; I’d find something on the radio and cruise. It was about sixty miles to Lewiston, which sat in a deep valley where the Clearwater and Snake Rivers came together and headed west toward Portland.
We’d lived in the valley until the baby came, then moved to Nez perce in order to be close to Jil’s family. During the flood season, I used to walk down to the river every morning after work and watch things float past. Once I saw the roof of a house drift by. Another time I saw a full-sized Appaloosa, kept up by a bloated stomach while the rest sagged in the water like it wanted to sink. Most of the time it was just the bits and pieces of people’s lives, and I couldn’t tell what things had been before the river turned them into debris.
I got to work ten minutes early. Instead of going in, I waited around the corner until the swing-shift people drove off. That way I didn’t have to hear any gossip or make small talk with people I didn’t like. It looked like an office building except for the razor wire on the fences and the abundance of surveillance cameras. I waved at one of them, and the front door opened magically and let me into the lobby. The next door weighed five hundred pounds, and the lock sounded like a bone breaking as it popped open.
My partner, Loretta, was sitting in the control room, reading the log while she drank a cup of coffee. She was about fifty and had gray-brown hair that hung just below shoulders that were always covered by the same Seattle Seahawks jacket. I liked working with some of the older women, especially ones with children of their own. They didn’t have anything to prove and could calm some of the toughest kids just by going maternal.
“Any meds to give out?” I asked.
“Let’s see,” she said, leafing through the medication book to make sure everyone had been properly drugged.
“Idiots!” she said with disgust. “They forgot to give Fred his Haldol.”
There were two-way microphones in each room so we could listen in or talk to kids if we needed to without entering their rooms. I turned on the sound in Fred’s cell, and he was babbling like a lunatic.
“I’m an ancient Ninja warrior,” he mumbled to himself in a voice I didn’t recognize, “skilled in the art of shadows.”
“Great,” I said, “Fred’s a Ninja again. We’d better give him something before he tries to walk through the walls.”
Before I finished my sentence, she handed me the sheet for Fred to sign and dug out the appropriate bottle from the medication locker. I took the pill, pink and harmless looking, put it in a paper cup and walked over to the observation room.
I looked through the window; Fred was in the corner. He sat in the lotus position, whispering to himself. Loretta turned on the light in his room, and he looked up at me with a blankness so complete I wondered if someone hadn’t given him medications already and forgotten to write it down. It happened sometimes.
“Fred…” I opened the door and leaned in. “How ya doing, buddy? I heard you talking and thought I’d check in and see what was up. You okay?”
It took Fred about fifteen seconds to come back to the world.
“Oh, hey, yeah … um … they never gave me my meds,” he said. “I feel like a video game.”
“Yeah, I know. Why don’t you come on over here and we’ll take care of that right now.”
He groaned like an old man when he got up, and his bare feet slapped the floor as he wandered over, scratching his crotch absently. I gave him the cup, and he took his pill. Then he took a long drink from the water fountain that was built into his stainless-steel sink/toilet unit, opening his mouth wide afterward and moving his tongue around so I could make sure he’d actually swallowed it. I wondered how many pills this kid had already taken in his life.
I handed him the pen and paper so he could sign. When I first started working there, I took a defensive step back every time I put a pen in someone’s hand, but I’d been slipping for a while.
“Okay, Fred, see if you can get some sleep man,” I said and locked the door between us. I looked over my shoulder as I walked away. His head was pressed up against the glass. It stretched and distorted as I moved down the hall, and from the end of the corridor I could just see a sliver of face framed in glass. It reminded me of the joker from a deck of cards.
After the first hour of paperwork and security checks, our duties were mostly janitorial unless some kid got arrested before our shift ended. Most nights were quiet, but once in a while they’d bring in a couple of stoners, a B&E, or maybe a drunk Indian kid who’d been letting off some steam. The intake was always the worst part. I had to watch them shower, check for contraband and abuse, make sure they put a lice-killing agent on their heads and crotches and then watch while they stood there, naked and wet, for three minutes while the Lice-All did its job.
I walked around with a flashlight and checked all the rooms. There were ten juveniles in lock-up that night, three girls and seven boys. I got a real weird feeling when I looked in on them. I wondered if their parents could sleep knowing that their babies were locked up, though the reality of the situation was that most of them didn’t give a shit. I can’t explain what it did to me when I closed the door on a kid and they stared through three inches of shatterproof glass in disbelief. Some nights I’d feel something heavy follow as I turned my back and walked past the rest of the faces behind the rest of the five-hundred-pound doors.
I tended to dwell on things. Graveyard shifts could do that, and I was happy to be distracted by anything but my own life. I decided to keep busy by doing a bunch of extra cleaning, so I got the floors all mopped and then moved on to the kitchen. Something happened while I was scrubbing the stainless-steel counters. One minute I was working away, singing along to the radio, when I noticed that nothing was getting clean. No matter what I did, there seemed to be this slight film that covered everything. So I started over, cursing the table as I went. Then I did it all again … again … and again.
I woke up with my head between my knees, and at first I didn’t know where I was. I sat under a table, my whole body aching. Loretta stood about ten feet away, watching me cautiously.
“Loretta,” I groaned. “What’s up?”
She had a tear running down her cheek and looked like she was trying to decide whether to come over and hug me or run for her life.
“Are you okay, Cal?” she asked. “I mean, I heard all this yelling and came to see what was happening, and you were sitting down, shaking and saying all of these terrible things. You want me to call someone so you can go home? I wish you’d just go home and take some time off. Maybe this is too much for you right now.”
She sounded truly worried, and it made me feel even worse, like an invalid.
I slowly stood up. My clothes were soaked with sweat. The kitchen was as clean as it had ever been.
“I’m okay,” I said, “just worn out. You know, it’s hard to sleep these days, and I been doing a lot of farm work on the side. Please … I need to work. Don’t make a big deal out of this, Loretta.”
She nodded in sympathy, but it didn’t make things any better. She led me to the couch in the rec room, told me to lie down and promised to wake me up if anything happened.
Naturally, something happened.
Loretta shook me awake and said that the police were on their way over with a wild one. They were coming straight from the hospital, where he’d gotten into it with the cops and a couple of orderlies as he’d tried to escape.
Loretta locked herself in the control room and let me out into the sally port, which was a small parking area surrounded by razor wire. A squad car pulled up, and as I unlocked the gate, I realized that things were not good because there was no head in the back seat. That meant one thing: someone was hog-tied. This happened once or twice a month, and it was hard to have a smooth intake if the kid had already gone a couple rounds with the cops.
Officer Anderson got out of the car first. He was huge, had a big, bald head that was covered with freckles, and always seemed happy with the way things were going. He could be wrestling some punk into the back seat of his car and still seem jolly – like it was nothing personal at all.
The other guy’s name was Blake. He sat in the passenger seat talking to the kid in back, and I could tell by his body language that he was baiting whoever it was. Blake had a textbook case of “little man’s syndrome.” He pulled his five-two frame out of the car with quick, jerky motions and came over to Anderson and me.
“Fucking little bastard,” he said. “He got lucky.”
I noticed that he had a shiner starting to develop under his left eye. “Looks like he snuck one in, huh, Blake?” I couldn’t resist these kinds of comments.
He gave me the menacing-cop stare.
“You’re gonna think that’s real funny when you need my help and I’m a few seconds too late.”
“I’ll keep that in mind the next time I’m wrestling around with a ten-year-old,” I said, and shifted my attention to Anderson. “Who’s in the back seat, Mike?”
“Your buddy Pat,” he said. He didn’t bother with the last name because we all knew Pat. “They found him down in California. He got arrested at Disneyland.”
Pat was my favorite. He was violent, didn’t listen to anyone, but there was something about him. Pat had a look most of the time – like nothing in this world could touch him. He’d run away from foster care months earlier, and I’d been wondering about him.
I got the handcuff keys from Anderson, which really pissed Blake off, opened the back door of the police car, and there was Pat; his arms and legs were shackled. Seeing him on his stomach, with his legs pulled behind by a chain fastened to his handcuffs, I had this flash of recognition: only babies lay like that. For a second I put my hand on Pat’s head to keep my balance.
He looked up at me, a hospital mask over his face – which meant he’d been spitting at people. I pulled the mask off, and he had this huge grin.
“What’s up, Dog?” he said.
“You okay, Patrick?” I asked.
“Shit,” he said. “They’re punks.”
“All right, Pat,” I said. “Let’s get down to business. I want to take the legs cuffs off and let you walk in here like a man, but you gotta be cool. Besides, it’ll really piss Blake off if you cooperate.”
He smiled and winked at me. I took the shackles off and helped him squirm up from his belly and out of the car. There was blood all over his shirt and a blood-soaked bandage on his left forearm. I held him loosely at the right elbow, and he stared at Blake as we walked toward the door, smiling. Anderson smoked a cigarette and looked at the moon. It was just a job to him. He was as neutral as a glass of water.
I took Pat to the intake corridor, which was closed off from the rest of the compound and had a small holding cell, bathroom/shower area, equipment room and a computer to do all the paperwork. Anderson and Blake followed us in and stowed their guns in a locker while I placed Pat in the holding cell.
“Jesus, Cal!” Anderson said. “You left a fucking pair of scissors on the counter.” He picked them up and waved them at me. “You gotta be more careful.”
He handed the scissors over, and I put them in the back pocket of my jeans.
“Oh, yeah. Thanks, Mike,” I said, and changed the subject. “What happened to Pat’s hand?”
“He punched out a window trying to escape from the hospital. The little bastard’s motivated, I’ll give him that,” Blake said. He gave me another dirty look. “I’m going out for a smoke. Mike, let me know when amateur hour’s over and we can get outta this dump.”
Pat was up against the window of the holding cell, watching us. He paid attention to everything; which keys opened which doors, what shift people worked and who didn’t get along. He was always looking for something he could use.
Anderson gave me all the paperwork: the warrant, hospital clearance and summary of new charges – which were five pages long. It took about fifteen minutes. Then I opened the gate for them to leave. I waved to Blake and smiled. He gave me the finger as they drove off.
I went back inside and waved to the camera so Loretta knew that everything was fine. As I waved, I took the scissors out of my pocket and set them on the other side of the computer monitor so the camera wouldn’t see them.
“You got it covered?” she asked over the intercom.
“Yeah, it’s just Pat,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Go ahead and get some chores done if you want.”
I felt that everything was far away, like when you look through the wrong end of a telescope. It didn’t really matter if she was watching … she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
I took the keys off my belt and opened the door to the shower and equipment room – got the computer set up like it was business as usual. Then I opened the door to the holding cell, where Pat was lying on his back with an arm over his face.
“Get out here!” I snapped, and he swiveled around, eyes narrowed, mouth tightening. He got up and walked out of the cell, gave me an appraising look but said nothing. I set the keys next to the pair of scissors and pulled my plastic chair closer so he was within arm’s reach. I leaned back and gave him a disgusted look.
“You’re a piece of shit.”
I said this without emotion.
“I’m sick of trying to help you – you’re hopeless.”
Pat leaned forward, and I could see the hair on his cropped head stand up a little. He started looking real cold, and I could tell he was thinking about going after me. His eyes darted up and down the corridor. Then he caught sight of the keys on the counter. He didn’t look directly at them, but his face broke into a cocky smile. Then his eyes flicked to the side again; he noticed the scissors, and his smile dropped.
“You’re a big disappointment to me, Pat. I can’t believe I brought you into my house to meet my family. I don’t know what I was thinking, bringing a no-good little fuck like you into my home.”
Pat didn’t know what to do. He was totally unprepared for it. He put his head down and groaned, looked at me, looked at the scissors and then put his head down again. He stood up and walked down the corridor toward the holding cell, like he was thinking about locking himself in, then turned around at the last minute and walked back.
“I didn’t tell you to get up,” I said. “Sit your ass down.”
He sat down and looked at me. We stared for about a minute, breathing heavy but not taking our eyes off each other. He nodded, as if he’d made up his mind about something, and I leaned back and waited for what I thought was coming.
“I know what you’re trying to do,” he said. “I heard about your kid.” I closed my eyes and put my hands behind my head. I started crying, put my head between my knees and started to blubber.
Pat reached out and touched me on the shoulder, pulled his hand back like he didn’t know what the hell to do but wanted to do something. Instead, he got up and walked into the equipment room. I heard him rummage around and he came out with the fingerprinting supplies, laid the ink-board out on the counter, took an FBI fingerprint card from the left-hand drawer and started to print himself. He took each finger and rolled it across the appropriate square, leaving perfect swirls that looked like the pictures of galaxies you see in science magazines. He walked back into the supply room, came out with a Handi-Wipe and started to clean the ink off his fingers. I’d stopped crying by then, but I didn’t know what to do about anything.
Loretta’s voice came over the intercom. She sounded worried, like maybe she’d seen something.
“You okay in there, Cal? Want me to come in and help out?”
“No,” I said quickly. “We’re fine, just having a talk.”
I could barely form a thought, but the words came out.
“Come on,” Pat whispered. “Get it together, man. You don’t want to lose your job.”
I went into the supply room, got the lice-killing shampoo and the black sweats and green T-shirt that all the kids had to wear. I followed him to the bathroom, sat on the edge of the sink and watched him take off his clothes and put them into one of the numbered bags we used to keep personal items separate. He got into the shower, put the lice killer on his head and crotch, then stepped out.
I looked over at him and he was standing there naked, looking back at me without shame. There were scars all over his chest and arms, and over his right breast was a tattoo of a giant “W,” which stood for the West Side. Blood soaked through the gauze bandage on his forearm. On his upper left bicep were three large elliptical scars that I knew he’d done with a lighter. There was a small, circular scar on the back of his left hand, where one of his foster parents had driven a roofing nail.
“You’ll be okay, Cal,” he said, and shivered. “Everything’s gonna work out, you’ll see. You can have more kids.”
I took some toilet paper and blew my nose; then I stood up and washed my face in the sink. Pat got back into the shower and rinsed the chemicals off. He stood under the water for some time. He shook water off his head like a dog does, then opened his mouth, gargled and spat into the drain.
I took the bag with his street clothes into the supply room and hung it up with the others while he dried off and got dressed. He came out and sat back down in the chair across from me, smiled and said he wanted to get some sleep if I was ready to take him to his cell.
When I opened the door to his room, he walked in and didn’t look back, like he was embarrassed at seeing me like that. I closed the door and watched while he made up his bed in the dark. When finished, he saw me standing there and quickly turned away. Then he lay down and faced the wall, hugged himself, and I saw his body start to quiver – but he didn’t make a sound.
Later that night, while Loretta was cleaning the bathrooms, I turned on the microphone and listened to his shallow, fragile breathing as he slept.
Ellen Morgan drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, keeping them light, not gripping the hot vinyl because the very act of expressing the tension that this endless traffic generated in her would only augment it. All cities had traffic, but here in the crumbling streets of Rio, wending their way stubbornly between rock and sea, the roads seemed incapable of spitting their charges out. She had the frustrating sensation that she was blocked forever, a corpuscle trapped within the thickened walls of the city’s collapsing veins. The light ahead of her changed, but the traffic didn’t move. Up and down the line, drivers leaned on their horns. She inched forward.
In the back seat Ellen’s youngest child sat and cried. She cried the way she always cried, with very little sound and great stoicism, willing the tears not to come, willing the sobs back down her throat where no one could hear them. But Ellen had known even before they left the gymnastics class that her daughter would cry. The knowing was what disturbed Ellen so much; she didn’t want her child to be sad and herself felt an inexplicable grief over how completely she took her child’s sadness to heart. Being a mother was too great a burden when you bore your children’s pain in addition to your own. She wondered if all mothers felt this way. It was such a small incident, the cartwheel that was perfect yesterday and executed so poorly today. Ellen had known the minute the girl flopped to the ground that she was not hurt but that her frustration would overwhelm her. When Ellen’s daughter left the mat, Ellen had looked carefully at her face and could see already the darkening of the eyes, the flushed cheeks. The child would cry, and because she was so good and had to always be thought of as good, she would hold back as long as she could, increasing the intensity of her discomfiture until the missed cartwheel would become the symbol of everything she had never been able to master.
Ellen sighed. Sometimes she cried herself. When her older child, a son, once tried to arrange a sleepover and called five friends who all had other plans, she’d cried because she knew her son’s loneliness. Today she had no energy to respond to her daughter. She’d used up all her distracting stories and carefully chosen words of encouragement. Ellen at last came to the corner and was stopped at the red light. She looked down at the reassuringly constant lights on the dashboard, and when she looked up again, there was a young man directly in front of the car. He had a red plastic nose stuck on his face and was wearing brightly striped socks and outlandishly large shoes. He started to juggle.
“Marisa, look,” cried Ellen.
The little girl, cheeks hot and wet, skeptically stared, accustomed to her mother’s distraction ruse. Outside in the street the man was tossing bowling-pin-shaped missiles into the air. At first it was a fairly routine display, but then he tossed the pins higher and spun around while waiting for them to come down. Then he tossed two at once, then the third in the middle. He was mugging and wiggling his hips while he tossed. Marisa fell silent. Ellen glanced at her in the rearview mirror and saw the slightest of smiles creasing the corners of her mouth. The man was probably looking for money, Ellen thought, and indeed when he caught the last pin, he whipped off his beret with a grin and a bow and headed toward Ellen’s car. But he had become so involved in his routine that he misjudged the time, and the light had already turned green. Those drivers behind who had not caught the act were not charmed and pressed hard on their horns. Ellen frowned through the window at the man, who shrugged back and stepped onto the curb. The line of cars inched on.
The diversion had been enough. The disappointing cartwheel was now relegated to the pile of inconsequence where it belonged, and the rest of the afternoon proceeded calmly. Ellen fed her children, who, as they had been trained, placed their napkins in their laps and kept their elbows off the table. She was proud that even when no one was looking they were beautifully behaved. She also knew that to some people they must appear stifled and dull. Were her children old before their time? Had she done them a disservice to praise them so lavishly for being good? She was vaguely anxious all the time, wishing for a manual that explained exactly what happiness was and how to generate it. Discipline, education, experiences. They all seemed like fair avenues in the right direction but lacked the critical element of joy that other mothers seemed to effortlessly cultivate in their families.
Ellen’s husband, Jake, came home as usual long after the children were asleep. Ellen lay reading in bed, her empty tea mug still warm to the touch. She resented her husband’s freedom to continue doing what needed to be done until it was done, yet welcomed the buffer his long hours afforded her between dealing with her children’s needs and dealing with his. Although his needs were few. What he wanted was her company, the thing she felt least like offering at 10:30 at night, already lulled by Earl Grey and her book.
She smiled up at him. He removed his tie, unbuttoned his top button and leaned forward to kiss her. He had been chewing mints. His shirt smelled like smoke.
“How was your day, hon?” she asked. When she was much younger she would read in magazines or watch on television as scores and scores of attentive wives inquired after their husbands’ days, and it had seemed to her absurd. How was it possible that they all said the same thing? Did the husbands believe the wives really wanted to know? Did they? Sometimes it worried her that in truth she had no interest whatever in Jake’s day, as he had no interest in hers. She wanted his day to be interesting and productive. She assumed he wanted her day to run smoothly and pleasantly. But she did not care whether his meeting was two hours long or three, whether the new reorganization made Bill his boss or Tomas. And he did not care whether Marisa cartwheeled perfectly or whether she tumbled into a heap and grew bitter with frustration. He certainly would not care that acrobats had joined the hordes of windshield cleaners, skateboarders, maimed beggars and pushcarts in the mad jumble of roadway hazards to which they were all daily subjected.
“Fine, how was yours?” Jake nuzzled her neck, stroked her shoulder. She very much wanted to finish her chapter, and she had to pee from the tea, but she could never say no to Jake. He was always warm and tender with her. It was good to feel this love, whose impediments were things like full bladders, nothing more.
Ellen needed gas. It was not a long way to the school, but traffic was so often blocked that you always needed to be prepared to burn a quarter of a tank idling. At the fork that led to her favorite station, where the attendants knew her, she was stopped by a red light. Once again the plastic-nosed clown appeared in front of three lanes of cars, and once again he began to juggle. With great energy and apparent ease he threw and caught, smiling with pleasure as if he were alone in his backyard. Ellen could not help but smile, too, with envy, at the simple gift of being able to entertain oneself so effortlessly. This time the young man timed his bow better; he had his beret in hand to solicit his audience well before the light changed. Ellen gave him a bill and a smile. “Thank you,” he said cheerfully, with no hint of a beggar’s humility. He had an accent. That was new. Begging in a foreign country seemed perverse somehow, especially when the emigrant was from a richer country. Was there an etiquette consideration here? At any rate, for a small fee Ellen had been momentarily amused.
At the school she waited for the interminable line of cars to slither through the iron gates, past the armed security guards, up to the curb where the children gathered in their intricate, arcane rituals of social clustering. No hive or court had a more defined structure. She noticed her own children sitting against a wall together, breaking the cardinal rule of school acceptance: You don’t associate with children in another grade, especially when the child in question is your brother or sister. Marisa and Danny were talking to one another, leaning together, heads down, in a pose Ellen recognized. Since Marisa had been old enough to talk, Danny had communed with her, making her a part of his narrow world. Only Ellen fit into it, and only with one of them at a time. Marisa alone sent signals directly into Ellen’s heart. Danny’s eyes spoke to her as clearly as a documentary movie. But together they lived on a different plain.
Ellen did not understand their social isolation. She had read many books about children of peripatetic families, especially those relocated every two or three years to new countries. It was well known that the children tended to rely more on one another than in more stable families, which Ellen had always considered one of the benefits of moving. But they were also supposed to develop the social ease and self-assurance that would allow them to make friends easily, which Danny and Marisa had not. Why?
Her children saw the car and her little wave and turned to gather their gear. Ellen thought for a second that Marisa had never had a friend. Ever. And a little boy in Venezuela named Bill was the only child Danny had ever brought home.
“Mommy, what’s wrong?” said Marisa, struggling to heave her overstuffed backpack and assorted folders, lunchbox and raincoat into the back seat, tangling herself up in the seatbelt strap and landing face first in Danny’s lap.
“Nothing, darling.” Ellen pulled out of the driveway and back down the hill. “How was school?” she asked, again boring herself with the banal interactions of daily life. What she needed to ask them was, Are you happy? When you’re grown up, will you look back on today and say, “I was lonely then” or “I was free”?
“Fine,” they answered in unison, the same rote answer they gave to the same question every day. Later they would all talk. Ellen knew that she should be more patient. There were the routine exchanges that represented tradition and continuity; the real communication occurred later, when they saw an enormous black-and-white hummingbird guzzling from a hibiscus flower or a helicopter that sounded as if it were about to land on the balcony. From there she might learn of Marisa’s cruel classmate stomping a gecko to death or Danny’s band teacher losing his temper and smashing on a cymbal. The news would come. Ellen could wait. In the rearview mirror her children looked like brilliant points of light against a monotonous gray. Did all mothers feel this crushing weight of maternal love? Ellen thought they must, and that suicide to escape it must never be far from any of their minds.
At home Danny needed help with his science report. Marisa volunteered to help him, and it was only much later, after she had sliced the bell peppers and red onion to saute for dinner, folded the laundry and emptied the dishwasher, that Ellen looked at what they had done. The two children were huddled at the kitchen table, surrounded by an array of colored pencils, scissors, stencils and manila paper.
“Look, Mom,” said Danny, obviously delighted with their accomplishment. In the center of the table was a beautifully accurate, full-color diagram of a penis, artfully shaded, meticulously labeled and pasted onto construction paper. Marisa was adding the finishing touches on the testicles while Danny cleaned up the scraps of paper left over from cutting out the diagram. The lines leading from the parts of the penis to their names had been drawn using a ruler and a thin black marker. The words were written with a stencil. Marisa was the artist, the expert with the colored pencils, which explained the delicate flesh tones and detailed attention to skin folds.
“What did you use for a guide?” asked Ellen. The diagram in Danny’s science book was not nearly as graphic as the illustration on the kitchen table.
“Gray’s Anatomy,” said Danny.
“Only we made it more colorful,” said Marisa.
Ellen went back to the stove. Later that night, when Jake came home, she was sitting in the living room.
“What is it?” he said. Ellen pointed to the science illustration lying on the coffee table.
Jake picked up the picture, examined it for a moment and started to laugh. “This is fantastic!” he said. “Did Marisa help with the artwork? She must have.” He was bursting all over with pride and amusement.
“But Jake,” said Ellen impatiently, “what will his teacher think when he sees this? He’ll think we’re perverts, that he drew this from a photograph or something. None of the other kids will have drawings like this.”
“That’s for sure.” Jake laughed again. “Kid’s a genius.”
Ellen was pretty sure her children were not geniuses, but she knew they were different and that different is a burden for a child. She could often foresee her children’s most difficult moments, and they filled her with dread. “The other kids will tease him.”
Jake sat next to her on the sofa, the drawing still in his hand. “You don’t know that. They’ll be awed. They’ll be jealous.”
“Whatever their real reactions, or whatever their reactions stem from, they’ll tease him. It will kill him. It’s like leading lambs to the slaughter every time. These kids are geniuses in this house and pariahs at school. Don’t you think we should at least try to condition them?”
They had had this conversation before. Ellen knew that Jake did not see the lowered eyes and burning cheeks that followed every rejection, every slight. He saw Marisa and Danny at home, where they had each other to impress. Jake put his arm around her, pulled her toward him to kiss the top of her head. “Relax,” he whispered. “They’ll be fine.”
They might, but would she? She decided to take the drawing to school herself and explain it to the science teacher. If he objected, she would have Danny redo it.
On the way to school she noticed three young boys, barefoot and wearing only shorts, hanging around the traffic light near the gas station. They had several green tennis balls at their feet and more in their hands that they hesitantly tossed up with one hand and caught with the other, one ball at a time. It wasn’t quite juggling, and the boys were concentrating so hard, their bodies stiff and alert, that it wasn’t exactly entertaining either. Why aren’t you in school? Ellen wanted to shout at them. Where are their mothers? she asked the dashboard. Just as the light changed, one of the boys dropped a ball and dove for it as it rolled between lanes. Terrified that he might be struck, Ellen stayed where she was and was forced to endure the almost instantaneous outburst of horn-blowing from the line of cars behind her. Her annoyance at the boys grew. The lost ball was retrieved, and the three boys scampered to the safety of the median strip, but Ellen was rattled. Where were the mothers?
Danny’s seventh grade science teacher, Pat Angell, had the same reaction to the penis as Jake.
“Mrs. Morgan, I have to tell you, your son is extraordinary. It’s been a delight to have him in class,” said Pat. He and Ellen had met before, during open house.
“You don’t think the other kids will make fun of him?”
Pat grimaced, just enough for Ellen to see that he knew what she had meant. “Danny has a special role in this class,” he said. “The kids all think he’s the smartest one in here, and he probably is, and that leads to a certain amount of, well, jealousy.”
So Ellen had been right. “Jealousy?”
Pat smiled and reached out to lay a hand on Ellen’s forearm. “Look, it’s nothing. The kids admire Danny; they’re just a little intimidated, so they don’t hang out with him that much.”
Leaving the school, Ellen felt as if nothing much had been accomplished. Every time she spoke to someone about her children she hoped for a great insight, a peek into the other side that would allow her to relax and stop fretting. But more often than not she heard the same story in carefully buffed words: Your children are odd, and they have no friends.
The following week, Jake and Ellen were in the car returning from a small dinner party at which Jake had alluded no fewer than three times to the fact that Ellen was afraid. “Afraid of what?” one of the guests had asked. Jake, anticipating the question, relished supplying his answer: “Everything!”
It was not like Jake. He had seemed to exult in the chance to declare this great weakness of hers. She suspected he wanted her to see the guests’ reactions so she could know just how absurd she was to fear life’s endless choices. She was thinking about this, wondering whether to bring up his comment now that they were on their way home and hours had passed since he had issued it, when they hit a red light at the spot she had come to think of as the jugglers’ strip. Instantly a band of children hurled themselves into the street. Even in her dismay at all these young children in the street at night, she couldn’t help but be amazed at their progress. She recognized a couple of them who just the week before had struggled with bitten lips to keep two balls in the air and who now were gracefully and effortlessly tossing and catching three. Much younger children had joined the band. A little girl, four years old at most, was clearly just learning and concentrated on the one dirty ball that she hesitantly threw up a foot and caught with two hands. Within minutes tennis balls percolated high and low, children diving across lanes of traffic to snatch at errant balls or scramble between the wheels of the cars to retrieve their equipment.
“Jesus!” said Jake. Ellen realized this was the first time he had seen the juggling phenomenon. “When did they quit cleaning windshields and selling gum?”
In the weeks that followed, Ellen came to look forward to but also to dread the string of corners where the children, whose numbers and territory had expanded, juggled. She respected their perseverance at an art form that they seemed to believe would be more lucrative than windshield-cleaning. But she refused to give them a penny in her stubborn belief that you should not encourage small children to play in traffic. One Friday, on her way up the hill to the school, she braked in time for a young boy, maybe seven, to step carefully and importantly into the street. He had meticulously painted half of his face white. His lips were painted red, and the unpainted side of his face was smeared with blue glitter in approximation of a butterfly. An older brother, or maybe a strong-willed neighbor, had initiated him into a gang and had bleached his hair to prove it. With his worried eyes and single-minded concentration, he reminded Ellen of Danny. He was, inexplicably, alone. Up went one ball, two, three, four times. The fifth time he reached into his outsized pants and pulled out another ball. This he incorporated into the circuit of the first ball. After another four or five tosses he drew a third ball from his pocket and added it to the circle. Just then Ellen, who had been mesmerized by the balls’ motion, noticed that he was smiling, a shy, self-congratulatory smile that creased his make-up and showed his big white teeth. His body had become more fluid as his routine proceeded flawlessly. Toward the end he added a subtle samba shuffle, without taking his eyes off the balls whose path circumscribed his face.
When at last he snatched his balls from the air and looked up at the line of traffic before him, Ellen couldn’t refrain from applauding inside her car. He came to her window, and she handed him a bill, which he took shyly and turned to go.
“Hey, what’s your name?” she asked him. “Waldemir.”
Ellen reached out her window and held on to the boy’s wrist. It was gritty and sweaty, like the wrist of any boy who had been outside playing. “Waldemir,” she said quickly, before he had a chance to yank his arm away, “go back to school.”
Back home she listened from the kitchen to her children talking in the living room. Marisa had decided to run for president of the student council. Ellen heard, mortified, that she was planning a campaign, had enlisted Danny’s help in the design and preparation of posters. She was feeling out his reaction to her potential slogans.
“How about ‘Marisa Morgan, someone you can trust’?”
“I don’t know. What does that really mean? I mean, do they not usually trust the student council president?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s like, you have to say something everyone will remember, because they don’t know you at all. At all,” said Danny. Danny clearly felt the same way as Ellen. Because he was kind and loved his sister he wouldn’t dismiss her plan as painfully misguided, but he, too, was aware of the potential for disappointment.
“Maybe you should wait until next year when we’ve been in the school longer,” said Danny.
“But then I’ll be in sixth grade, and no one will elect a sixth grader to the middle school student council,” said Marisa, the strategist.
“But you might not win,” said Danny gently.
“But I might, right?” said Marisa. “Mom,” she called out, knowing, the way children do, that her mother was nearby – though Ellen had stayed conspicuously quiet throughout the discussion. “Don’t you think I might win?”
Ellen, leaning against the kitchen countertop, took a deep breath. “Mom?”
Ellen took two shallow breaths. “Yes, darling?”
Marisa’s face peered around the corner. She was a pretty child, finefeatured with dark eyes and a delicate chin. Her eyebrows rose when she saw her mother supporting herself against the countertop. “You think I could win, don’t you?” An invisible fiber of love and trust connected Marisa’s eyes to Ellen’s. In the child’s face a universe of expectation waited for the signal of approval to be transmitted across the transparent bond. Ellen closed her eyes until the flush of hot love she felt for this precious child passed. She opened her eyes and bent near her daughter, put her hands on Marisa’s shoulders.
“Of course you might win. Somebody will win, and it might as well be you.”
Marisa and Danny made posters. They spent an entire weekend with their supplies arrayed around them on the floor, scissors, glue, paper scraps and poster board, and as the hours progressed the stack of posters grew, each one slightly different, each one declaring in radiant bubble letters, Marisa Morgan, The Best Choice for President. Marisa practiced her speech in front of the family. They all had suggestions for when she should inflect her voice, when she should gesticulate. Jake read her passages from the manual he had used during a brief bout with Toastmasters. Danny added a joke to the speech that was later cut when they found that Marisa lacked comedic timing entirely. Ellen bit her lips till they bled. The family shouldered on as if on Monday morning Marisa’s spirit wouldn’t be crushed.
On voting day Marisa dressed carefully. Ellen brushed her hair longer than was necessary and, per Marisa’s instructions, carefully wove two perfect French braids. When she was done she hesitated at the girl’s back, running her finger along the irregular hairline at the nape of her daughter’s neck. Since Marisa was born she had had these faint swirls of baby hair, and even now Ellen, because she was her mother and knew where to look, could find these remnants of the baby in her daughter. Marisa was pale and nervous as she left for school. Danny was grim.
The day passed slowly. Ellen resisted the temptation to call the school and ask about the elections outcome. She wondered why her pride at her daughter’s courage was overshadowed by her dread of the inevitable outcome.
Driving to the school was excruciating; Ellen wanted to never arrive. As she pulled into the driveway she saw her two children sitting crosslegged together the way they always did, bent over a book, heads nearly touching. She could gain no insight through their body language. Was Marisa’s head drooping, or was she merely scrutinizing her book? Was Danny pressing against her more protectively than usual? Just then a boy walked in front of her children. They both looked up and the boy spoke to them, though Ellen could not see the boy’s face. Marisa smiled broadly and gave the boy a thumbs-up. Ellen was stunned. Was it possible she had won?
Ellen was trembling with anticipation by the time the children tumbled into the car.
“So?” she demanded, twisting around to inspect their faces. Their eyes were bright on her, teasing her, trammeling her maternal anxieties. “I lost,” said Marisa cheerfully. Ellen looked at Danny for confirmation and an explanation. He nodded.
“She lost,” said Danny.
“But my speech was great,” said Marisa.
“Everyone was talking about her speech,” said Danny.
Marisa squirmed with pleasure in the back seat. “Daniela won because she’s the most popular girl in fifth grade. But her speech stank,” said Marisa. “Everyone said mine was much better.”
On the way home they drove past the jugglers’ strip. The light was green, but traffic was slow, and as they rolled by, Ellen caught a glimpse of the original clown, the foreign monarch of the street circus, at curbside readying himself to launch his act. But instead of bowling pins he had in his hands a dowel of sorts, padded on one end with a wad of rags. He poured something onto the padded end, struck a match and ignited the tip of his stick. As Ellen drove slowly past he sauntered into the street, raised the flaming stick in an arc above his head, and she realized with a start that he was preparing to swallow fire.
Kenny rides the horse, a sophomore in my tenth-grade Language Arts class, does not know how to write but loves to draw. When I assign an in-class writing exercise on the subject of Truth—What Is Truth?—he grins, waves his hand and asks for a large sheet of white drawing paper. I think I understand his tone of anxious urgency, as if, were he not to have drawing paper very soon, he would more than likely self-destruct.
“Mr. Pitts,” he says, clearing his throat and unzipping his pencil case, which causes the rest of the class to stop their gossiping and look up from their magazines or biology texts or sleep. He waves and points to the bookcase behind my desk. “I think I’ll be needing some of the big white paper.”
“Fine, Kenny,” I say. “You bet.”
Kenny and I have become good friends, in the way that a white teacher can be friends with an Indian student, whatever way that may be. Neither one of us is comfortable here, in the school, except, seemingly, when we’re together. Kenny and I are slow learners. Most days I have trouble believing I know anything; the cloud of unknowing billows out around me in proportion to the triviality of the subject matter. This is a good thing, l remind myself. Together, Kenny and I don’t feel stupid. We seem to share a purpose.
Some days our friendship feels deeper, so that after school, when the last locker has banged shut, I am relived to see Kenny standing before my desk, smiling. He usually brings a few plastic Star Wars figurines he has casually ripped off from the Wal-Mart in Billings and stuffed inside the huge cargo pockets of his bright orange Denver Broncos parka. I have fantasized about doing this myself, about how good it would feel to finally bring home the 658-piece Lego Millennium Falcon my son so patiently admires. With Kenny’s help, I could slit open the box and take the model out of the store piece by piece, all 658 of them, fancy-dancing past the cashiers in invisible hyperspeed.
“Today was a sad day,” Kenny says. “I felt myself getting angry at people. I felt myself angry at my mom. She partied with her friends all night. She asked me things, like if I wanted to get high too. This is Anakin Skywalker, Mr. Pitts,” he says as he carefully sets the little blond plastic boy on my desk. “He looks like Leonardo Di Caprio from Titanic, only smaller.”
“It’s good to know why you’re angry, Kenny,” I say. “Most of the time we don’t know, and that’s what can really mess us up. But it’s also important to know, or just to be aware of, when you’re angry. It forces us to keep cooler when we might just, you know, make some trouble for ourselves.”
“This is Qui-Gon Jinn,” Kenny says as he sets another figurine next to Anakin. “I heard someone stole your Star Wars video, Mr. Pitts,” he says.
I took my son’s video to class to kill time during semester exams. Someone walked away with it, I’m certain, during Crow Language class, which uses my room fifth period, while I sit in the library grading papers. This has been a major ethical dilemma for me because I think the thief is a Crow, a wild illiterate named Washington McCormick who dictates alcoholic sonnets to his teaching aides. I’m pissed at Washington not only because he ripped me off but because he’s talented. He couldn’t care less about poetry. I’ve been walking around alternately full of rage at Washington or ironically admiring him to the point of secretly cheering the robbery. How else could he get his hands on a Star Wars video? Then I imagine him and his friends getting stoned while watching the film and replacing the soundtrack with a Snoop Doggy Dogg CD. And I think of my son Jackson, who looks a bit like Anakin, howling down the universe for his heroes to come back. “They don’t feel guilt,” is what the assistant principal says. “It just ain’t there.”
“So, how’d it go today, man?” I ask Kenny.
“Not too good, Mr. Pitts. Some kids pushed me around. They said I was sticking up for a little kid, a freshman.”
Kenny is a big guy, about six foot two and heavily built. I would not want to get punched by him. Until recently he wore his black hair in a ponytail; then he showed up one day sporting a violent buzz cut.
Kenny seems to understand my puzzled look.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone, Mr. Pitts. But sometimes I want to kill people. And that makes me sad.”
“Well, yeah, killing is never a good thing.”
Kenny grins and grunts his grunting laugh. “Sometimes,” he says.
I glance out at the empty hall. Today a teacher found a homemade scalpel stuck in the top of her door frame. I opened my door at the final bell the other day to a small pile of bullets in front of the lockers. I make a mental note to talk to Kenny’s counselor tomorrow, but I note, too, that it will prove a waste of time.
“I’ve got to go, Kenny.”
“Uh, Mr. Pitts?”
“Oh, I forgot, Kenny. Here you go.” I give him a stack of big white drawing paper whenever he comes by after classes.
I put on my jacket and walk to the door. I see Kenny into the hall and walk with him out the front steel doors into the cold air.
But even though I have said good-bye to Kenny, he hasn’t returned the wave. In fact, he matches me stride for stride. We walk along in silence until we come to his street.
“Well, Kenny,” I say, “see you tomorrow.”
“Would you like to see my house, Mr. Pitts? You can meet my mom.”
“Well, I have dinner waiting … so I can’t stay long.”
He grins hugely.
The one-story clapboard house is nearly paintless, scoured clean by the sun and the wind. The yard is scarred by frozen tire ruts; the sagging front porch is supported by pieces of concrete block; a few windows are broken. Kenny opens the front door; we step into the front room, and there’s a woman lying on a car seat under an Indian blanket, holding a rag over her eyes. On the floor are a full ashtray and a few beer cans.
“Mom,” says Kenny, “this is Mr. Pitts.”
After a moment the woman moans, then rolls over toward the seatback.
We move to the kitchen, which is bare except for a cooler on the floor, a table, some chairs and clean plastic dishes in a dish drainer. My sense is that Kenny does the work. “Here is the kitchen,” he says.
I’ve seen enough, but Kenny continues to a small room at the back of the house. He opens the door. On the floor is a foam mattress covered with an Indian blanket. Arranged neatly around the edges of the room are Kenny’s Star Wars figurines, all caught midaction, oblivious to each other in their separate realms. The walls are covered with Kenny’s drawings on white paper. Drawings surround the edges of the window. “Keeps the wind out,” he says.
I walk to school (my house is five minutes away), arriving at 7:30, when just the secretary and a few teachers are there. I pass a run-down house on the corner every morning and witness an angry Crow father barrel into the driveway, lean on his horn and curse his two little daughters as they are pushed out of the house by their mother. Sometimes I run into Kenny on his way to school, and we walk together. Mostly we greet each other in my room.
After opening my classroom door, I usually turn on my computer, then go down the hall to the faculty lounge to get coffee. I leave my door open and on this morning when I return, Kenny is standing at attention in front of my desk, wearing his Denver Broncos parka even though the classroom is sauna temperature. He turns to me as I walk into the room, pushing his glasses up and squaring his shoulders. What does he want from me? I have nothing to teach.
He grins and nods. “Good morning, Mr. Pitts.”
“Good morning, Kenny. How are you today? You left your stuff here,” I say, gesturing toward the two Star Wars figurines.
“They’re for you, Mr. Pitts,” he says.
I have written three words in large block letters on three big pieces of white paper and taped them to the glass transom above my door: Truth, Beauty, Goodness.
The other day at a faculty meeting in which we were discussing changes to the high school’s mission statement, I suggested the addition of those three words, and the principal thought them “kind of weird.” I agreed with him. They seemed hackneyed and precious. But I also believe, desperately at times, in that humanist trinity. “So they’re weird,” I said. “And this place is normal?” The Title 1 family advocate, who might have been a good friend had he not gotten divorced and left, had asked me one day after I put the words up, “Hey, man, what are those words for?” He’d been swinging an oversized driver in my room after class. We had been talking about golf and divorce.
I’d looked up at them. I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know why I had put them up—maybe out of anger, getting back at students for not making me look like a good teacher. “Reminders of what I’m supposed to be doing here, I guess.”
“That’s cool,” he’d said, as if I had just revealed a kinky personal hobby. “So, what the fuck are you supposed to be doing here?”
In response to my deep questions about concepts like Truth, which come fast and furious now, toward the end of the year, Kenny draws complicated coats-of-arms consisting of a trinity of figures entwined around what looks to be a Celtic cross—a World Wrestling Federation star and an Indian chief crossing his hatchet with a pistol held by Custer, whose long blond hair Kenny always colors orange. Sometimes he complements this intimate family with a background rendering of the Titanic steaming into oblivion.
I find Kenny’s drawings more eloquent than any of the student writing I’ve received this year. I give Kenny As on these drawings, even though my understanding of them is merely intuitive. In their laboriously articulated synthesis of American junk culture, science fiction and Christian and Crow symbolism, Kenny’s drawings are precise and incisive pieces of existential commentary. Try explaining that to the standardized testers.
It was clear to me soon after meeting Kenny at the start of the year that he would not need me to help draw out and channel his copious creative and intellectual energy. It was also clear that he was “learning disabled,” “FAE,” as they say, mildly retarded owing to his mother’s alcohol abuse. I added my own diagnosis—inconsolable hopelessness. Understandably, Kenny was also deeply superstitious; he represented his superstition, I sensed, in his drawings. As the year wore on I found myself a bit obsessed with being able to articulate, not just intuit, what Kenny was saying in his pictures since he could never explain to me what they meant. “It’s a picture of the Rock, Custer and Sitting Bull, with the Titanic behind ’em, Mr. Pitts,” he would say when I asked him to explain. “Nice, huh?” I woke up one night convinced that if I couldn’t understand what Kenny was saying in his drawings, then I’d never be any good to a student who, of all students, needed my help.
One day, when we were reading Lewis and Clark’s Journals, I raised the subject of the role of superstition—that of both the white explorers and the Indians they met on their way northwest. Lewis and Clark possessed an unflappable belief in the power of precise observation, so they were able to maintain their journals in the harshest of conditions, believing in the value of their work for the future. I also agreed with the Indian view that the Expedition was a grim event, as it marked the official beginning of the end of the Plains Indian—the ending being the nearby Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Custer’s Last Stand, which is reenacted every summer.
On August 25, 1804, near the Whitestone River, the Expedition arrived at the base of a hill rising from the plains, called by local Indians the “Mountain of little people.” In his journal William Clark wrote that the Indians believed these “little people” to be of “human form with remarkable large heads, and about 18 Inches high, that they are very watchfull and are arm’d with Sharp arrows with which they can kill at a great distance; they are Said to kill all persons who are So hardy as to attempt to approach the hill.” With an American military man’s need for proof and an anthropologist’s curiosity about the natural basis of native superstition, Clark remarked, “One evidence which the Inds give for believeing this place to be the residence of Some unusial Sperits is that they frequently discover a large assemblage of Birds about this Mound is in my opinion a Sufficent proof to produce in the Savage Mind a Confident belief of all the properties which they ascribe it.”
What struck me about this passage was the superstitious nature of Clark’s own “informed” opinion. I was puzzled about Clark’s need for proof and further, as to what would determine the “sufficiency” of it.
The topic of discussion in class that day was cross-cultural understanding.
“So what do you guys think?” I said to the class. “Some of us believe in the little people, right?”
Over half the class was Indian, and I knew that many Crows still believed deeply in a race of essentially benevolent little people living in the Pryor Mountains, southeast of town. The Indians in class were silent. Some of the white students tittered nervously. Kenny smiled at me, sweating. I let the silence settle, staring at the big silver piece of duct tape I had covered a gash in the carpet with.
An Indian girl finally spoke. “Yeah, there’s like a whole bunch of them little people, eh? You leave ’em cigarettes and candy bars and stuff.”
The class laughed, the Indian girls saying, “Ehhh” in unison.
“Or some weed,” said a white student, and the class—Indians and whites—broke up. I saw my opening.
“So come on, who believes in this stuff anyway? How are the little people different from Santa Claus or leprechauns?”
More silence, more drooling, more slack-jawed wonder. I thought, I’ll put ’em away with a zinger, but I knew it was lame even as I said it.
“Do you guys know that some hotels in Ireland have rounded corners, to make it easier for leprechauns to move around?”
“What the fuck is a leprechaun?”
And then, “Where the fuck is Ireland?”
Silence. Searching for life, my ears picked up a peeling sound. Then I saw that Delbert Walks, a six-foot-five Crow basketball player whose arms hung down to the floor when he leaned back to sleep, was peeling the plastic baseboard from the wall, all the while looking straight at me—more out of boredom than anything else. With his huge hands he flicked the little black pieces to various points around the room. That’s where they’re from!
I put down my book. “Hey, Delbert,” I said, “how’s it going, man?”
He continued to stare and peel, stare and peel. The class giggled.
“Well, that’s cool. ‘Cuz before I give you noon detention and the details of your new after-school job cleaning desks, I just wanted to know your thoughts on the little people.”
His stare seemed almost to say something, to take on a subtle change in tone, before I put an end to my wishful thinking. I turned around, ready to assign some in-class writing. I heard a rumbling, as of a human voice.
“What’s that?” I asked the class. They gestured toward Delbert. I cupped my hand to my ear. “What’s that, Delbert?”
He stared at me. I hated to think it, but he looked pretty close to the cigar-store Indian, if the Indian had ever worn size 18 Air Jordans. “They’re a lot smaller than me,” said Delbert.
Uproarious laughter. Kenny laughed the hardest, harder than me, anyway. So hard that he had to remove his glasses for safety. Delbert stared.
“That’s a fine answer, Delbert,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. He had taken care of all the baseboard within three feet of his desk. He had also spoken. Seemed like a fair trade.
Later, my sixth-period class, half white, half Indian, wouldn’t respond at all to anything I said, so I gave them in-class writing (topic: Do you have any superstitions?). One Crow girl who had been surly the entire year finally dropped all pretense and asked the class as she leaned back against the far wall, “Is anybody gonna do this assignment?” The rest of the class eyed me with grim pleasure, as they might follow a fight scene in Die Hard.
I had opened the class by pointing out how the students had segregated themselves, the Indians on the far side and the whites nearer the door. Lenny Gomez, who was twenty and a father of two and worked at the Pizza Hut over by the interstate, was half Crow, half Mexican and a brilliant writer when he had the time. He was the leader of the Indians. They were a formless mass on their side of the room until he sauntered in, when they drew their desks around him. Lenny had drawn me a wild picture of a godlike Indian brave wearing dreadlocks. The brave posed fiercely against a backdrop of marijuana leaves and a “Legalize it!” slogan. The caption of the picture read, “SKINDIAN.” I’d taped the picture to the wall behind my desk. I had no idea what it meant. Perhaps it didn’t mean anything. Why was I always looking for meaning?
Lenny had given me the picture after class one day when I had spent the period talking to him about staying in school. I had said that I liked reggae music—Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff—and we’d slapped hands in the new way. You held your hand up limply, as if it were a dead fish, and then joined yours with your partner’s in a kind of lazy, deadfish slap. I’d gotten the feeling that this bit of shared interest, plus the knowledge that I was a highschool dropout, was what Lenny heard, not the life’s philosophy stuff. Lenny worked fulltime at the Pizza Hut—what philosophy would he need? What philosophy wouldn’t he need? Eventually Lenny would bring his checkout paper to sign, and he would disappear. I would see him at the basketball courts one morning the following summer. We’d play HORSE, not saying much—his kids were okay, he loved his wife. Man, you got it all, I’d say.
When he came to class, Lenny directed things on the other side of the room. He told Pius Old Elk, a Navajo who lived on the Crow reservation, to get to work when I assigned in-class exercises. Lenny would lean over to touch Ronald Stewart on the shoulder and ask him if he needed help. Ronald would come into class, sit down and not raise his head until the bell rang. He had a nasty crank habit in addition to being an alcoholic, so I let Lenny see to him.
A teacher had told me that Ronald was a phenomenal point guard. I had initially thought this interesting, in the way that an educated white man would, if he was into sports. But finally, this bit of knowledge about Ronald seemed absurdly irrelevant, and, more to the point, destructive. Basketball wasn’t life, even if the Indians lived for it, and I didn’t like playing along. Lenny didn’t either, which is one of the reasons I admired him.
Lenny dispensed advice to his ganja braves as they hunkered down with their pencil stubs over their notebook paper ripped from Lenny’s pad. They would be talking in low tones about Vince Carter dunks, and Lenny would go along but then cap the topic with an astute warning. “Hoops is just a way to deal with rez boredom, man. It ain’t gonna get us anywhere, you hear, coz?” And they’d nod and snicker with a strangely even, uncynical tone. I’d learned to interpret that snicker as a sign of my male Indian students’ unabashed resignation to their lives.
The other side of the room, the white side, was centered around Dean, the wise-ass rancher’s son whom I’d had trouble with for a while, until I learned to let go of any responsibility for his failures in life. When Dean acted up I sent him out of the room as quickly as possible, usually with a pat on the back and a “Later, dude.” This pleased the whites and the Indians, especially the girls, who would actually look up from their nails. When confronted with an activity requiring some thought, Dean simply put his head down on his desk after a short gossip session and sighed, “Man, I’m tired of this class.” But if, while I was explaining an assignment or trying to get discussion going, Dean tried to throw me off, Lenny intervened, telling Dean to shut up and motioning for me to come over to the other side of the room, the Indian side, “to teach us.”
On that day in my sixth-period class with Lenny and Dean, I said, during a particularly annoying period of indifferent silence or fear, following yet another attempt to get a discussion going about racism, “You guys are just dumb and lazy, that’s all. Indians and whites, whatever damn color you are. You need to know that nobody’s gonna help you. You’re not going anywhere. I know ‘cuz I dropped out of high school myself. Go ahead and drop out. See where you end up. Hey, Dean, think about it, man, you could be lookin’ pretty cool hangin’ outside the Stockman Bar with your ten-gallon hat and your spurs, waitin’ for all the babes to get out of school.
“And Pius, just think, instead of wastin’ your time in here with this bullshit, you could be dunkin’ the ball in your driveway in Crow Agency, pretendin’ to be Vince Carter.”
Pius and Dean smirked and shook their heads; the girls put their hands to their mouths. Ronald slept.
“Hey, Mr. Pitts, that ain’t cool, man,” said Lenny from the comer.
“Hey, Lenny, it’s time to quit the cool bullshit,” I said. I looked at the clock. “Thirty more minutes with you turkeys. That’s depressing.
I tossed my notebook and pen on my desk and opened the book I was reading—Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. I figured if I was fired, it was okay; I wasn’t doing much good anyway. I also knew that I probably wouldn’t be fired, because the school would never find anybody to take my place. What the hell?
“One more thing, guys,” I said from my desk. “You seem to be able to separate yourselves by color, but when it comes to actually fighting, you just don’t seem to have the balls. So tell me, why should I care?” I knew their parents didn’t care what went on in class. I’d be more than willing to defend myself anyway, as I’d done many times.
“Hey, man, that’s not fair, Mr. Pitts,” Lenny said.
I grabbed a pen and began underlining sentences in my book. My students hated to see this. Even though they’d never read a book, for them, writing in one was like keying a new car.
The bell finally rang and they slunk out. I stood at the door and patted each student on the back as they left.
“Good work, guys,” I said as they disappeared into the hall traffic, enjoying their dumb confusion at my tone. “You have fun now.”
On the walk home I considered going back to work at my brothers’ construction company. I thought about how good a big framing hammer would feel in my hand.
Kenny attends the Hope Church, which is housed in a prefab building off Main Street, behind the supermarket-turned-bargain-clothingstore, just down the street from his house. I have never been to the Hope Church, but .1 imagine, probably wrongly, that it’s another haven of theologically confused, emotionally overwrought fundamentalism. Often Kenny seems puzzled by the contradictions between his experiences at the Hope Church and the circumstances of his life. Or he may just as well be trying to reconcile the violence and brutality of life everywhere, in the past and present, with the Christian message of love and peace.
On some mornings Kenny waits for me outside my door, his thumbs in his belt loops, leaning against the wall, his head framed by two passages I have copied onto big white pieces of paper. One of the quotations is Thoreau, saying that education is an expensive game, and the other, Chief Plenty Coups, saying that education is the best revenge. One hallway commentator has drawn a penis in the corner of Chief Plenty Coups, and someone—maybe Lenny—has drawn saw-toothed marijuana leaves over Thoreau. When I see Kenny outside my door as I walk down the dim hall, I know what’s bothering him, and I know we’re going to have the same conversation we have whenever he’s angry. But this repetition has become important to me; I am as angry and frustrated as Kenny. On this day, Kenny gives me a gift.
He grins and giggles, then says, “Good morning, Mr. Pitts. How is your day going?” He steps aside as I unlock the door.
“Fine so far, Kenny. Good to see you. How’s everything for you?”
“Not so good,” he says, following me into the classroom and taking up his position in front of the desk.
“My mother had a party last night. She was up all night partying, so I couldn’t sleep. Then her boyfriend started to hit her, and she was screaming and crying. Then after a while she was laughing. I’m so angry at my mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Pitts.”
“Anger isn’t good, Kenny. Sometimes I’m angry too.”
“What do you get angry at, Mr. Pitts?”
“Well, I get angry at not being able to do what I want to do, or that I don’t get done what I want to get done.”
“Hmmm,” he says, grinning and nodding. “Hmmm.”
“Sometimes I don’t think I’m a very good teacher.”
Kenny nods—a momentary bummer. “Hmmm,” he says, “you don’t think kids learn anything in your classes. Hmmm.”
“Well, I suppose that’s it. I was thinking more along the lines of not teaching them the right things. So I get angry at myself.”
“Hmmm. It’s not a good thing to get angry at yourself, Mr. Pitts.”
“Well, you’re right about that,” I say as I turn on my computer.
“Don’t be bummed, Mr. Pitts. This is for you, Mr. Pitts,” he says as he takes from his coat pocket a plastic Star Wars figurine and sets it on my desk. “It’s a free gift, for you.”
I pick up the little person, imagining Kenny gently lifting it from the racks of expensive plastic toys, knowing it’s for me.
“It’s Chewbacca,” I say. “That’s interesting. Thank you very much, Kenny. I’m curious. Why did you pick Chewbacca for me?”
Kenny clears his throat and pushes his glasses up on his nose.
“I was going to give it to the little people, Mr. Pitts. But then I wanted to give it to you.”
I wonder about the symbolism but decide there is none.
“My mom was gonna drop me off in Pryor on her way to Billings, so I was gonna walk up to the caves where the little people live and leave them Chewbacca. But she had a hangover and couldn’t go. It’s for you, Mr. Pitts.”
“Would the little people like this?”
Kenny pauses and looks down.
“Mr. Pitts,” he says, “it’s not right to talk about the little people. They don’t like to be talked about, so that’s why we should never talk about them. Okay?”
Like everyone else, I barely make it to June. On the last day, the one student I have most wanted to teach—Kenny—and have failed to, slaps hands with me outside the school. On Saturday I tell my wife I need to go into the Pryor Mountains to breathe a big sigh of relief and to look for the little people. If I cant talk about the little people, then maybe I can at least get a look at them. Okay, she says, just remember that you’re bigger than they are. I would hope so, I say. Maybe I am just “paranoid about everything,” as my wife put it when I told her earlier in the week that I had had two equally terrifying daytime nightmares. In the Indian nightmare, war-painted Crow braves creep through the streets in the darkness waving sharpened hatchets, led by a student I’ve failed. In the other nightmare I am revealed as a fraud; my family is vaguely embarrassed; I go on to a successful career as a Wal-Mart security manager.
I asked Father Francis, the priest at the Catholic mission in St. Xavier, about twenty miles away, how I would find the little people. Father Francis knows the area around the Pryor Gap—the pass over the Pryor Mountains leading into Wyoming—as well as anybody. Cool, said Father Francis. You come to some boulders, which are prehistoric markers. You’ll see all kinds of smaller rocks scattered around—these are the remains of offerings to the little people. Veer off to the right, go up into the mountains and you’ll hit the caves where they live.
One of my Crow students, unafraid to talk about the little people, told me about an abandoned railroad tunnel near the caves. Apparently the little people didn’t take to the Chinese workers blasting a hole in their mountain, so they simply caved in the tunnel.
When I get to Pryor I go to the Chief Plenty Coups museum and ask the Crow attendant where I might find the little people. She stands at the counter, lighting a bowl of incense. “Oh, they’ll be here soon,” she says, inhaling deeply. “‘They go south a little ways into Wyoming for the winter.”
“Hah,” I say. The smoke smells thrillingly of marijuana.
She fixes me with a stare above the rims of her glasses.
“Why do you laugh?”
“No, no,” I say, “I’m not laughing, I’m just. . . ”
“Here you go,” as she reaches under the counter. She pushes a videotape toward me. “You’ll probably want to see this. It’s kind of interesting.” She motions toward a video monitor next to a cabinet displaying Chief Plenty Coups’ war shirt. Many Crow traditionalists find Plenty Coups weak, an “apple”: red on the outside, white on the inside. That would make me a Vidalia onion—layers and layers of white, no discernible center.
I pop in the video and, inhaling deeply, watch an episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries, about a twelve-inch-high prehistoric mummy found in a cave in Wyoming in the 1950s. The mummy made the rounds of labs and weird private owners, all claiming it as a full-grown little person, until modern science showed them up, proving it to be a deformed baby. I hit rewind. As usual, the present is more mysterious than the past. And if I did see a little person, would I sit and listen to its sage advice? Would I capture it, cage it up and go on tour?
“Thank you very much,” I say to the attendant.
“Good luck, hey,” she says.
“Thanks, I’ll need it,” I say, but then wonder why I would be needing luck. If the little people have gone south, what chance is there at all of seeing them, with or without luck?
Briefly, I consider going home.
The two-lane blacktop gives way abruptly to gravel, and after some curves through brush and some ranches—a corral, a cottonwood grove, a rusty house trailer, clothes on a line, a pickup—I cross a creek and turn up into the mountains.
The road gets bumpier, the rocks more numerous. I bounce up along a gray cliff face full of small caves; an eagle soars high overhead. Come on. I’m in no mood for symbols. I can barely tolerate myself. I stop the truck at the turn toward the collapsed railroad tunnel, get out and in the windy silence of the canyon realize I’m no longer interested in seeing the little people. Perhaps I’ve only been interested in the site for such a belief, as Clark had been—how the mountains and the birds had spoken to the Indians. I was looking for the natural causes of supernatural belief, but beneath this curiosity was a desire, in the hypermodern world, for a faith in things unseen. I sit down on a boulder.
“What? What is this shit you’re sayin’? ‘Faith in things unseen,’ my ass. I got a boil that pains me less than listening to the inside of your white head.”
I turn. Nothing, just a high-pitched voice.
“Over here,” says the voice.
On top of a rock a few feet away is an Indian man, about, well, eighteen inches high. He looks off down the mountain, rubbing his pot belly.
“Why do you make me sound like Jackie Mason? I’m an Indian. Whazza mattah, you don’t know what an old Indian fart sounds like? Lemme show ya.”
He rips a long fart, then whistles between his teeth.
“One of my fans left me a can of commodity beans—you know what just one lousy bean does to me?”
“I—I really shouldn’t be here, you know,” I say. “It’s not right, if you know what I’m saying.”
The Indian turns toward me finally and, surprisingly, surefootedly, and with little grunts, hops from rock to rock until he stands next to me.
“So who’s gonna know? Whaddya, afraid of some PC Indian, some earth-mother, eagle-feather-rubbin’ Sundance Chief? Ever read Deloria? Me neither. Okay, pahdna’.” He sticks out his hand. “I’m a little person, which you may have guessed.”
I hesitate. “I’m Mr. Pitts, a big white person.” I take his hand in my palm.
He nods, then grimaces. “Is that so? So whaddya got for me? What lame white shit you gonna lay on me?”
“Mr. Pitts, you can’t lie to me. Which you’re aware of this.”
“I’m divided against myself, split down the middle, at war with my very being. I also think I’m doing a shitty job at work. It’s a waste of time. The wife and kids are fine.”
“Your wife’s fine? Who taught you to be so dishonest with yourself? Where do you people learn that?”
He puts two fingers to his lips and chucks his head a bit.
“Is that Plains Indian sign language?”
“What? No—you featuring smokes?”
I light a cigarette for him, which he takes in both hands, bringing the filter to his face. He sucks and inhales deeply, then exhales. Resting the filter end in his hands, he lets the lit end of the cigarette fall to the rock. Then he sits down, resting the filter end in his lap. He raises his arms and stretches, then hocks a loogey and spits. “Ahh,” he goes. “The boys’ll be jealous, eh? So lemme tell ya. Don’t worry so much. Those kids are learnin’, in spite of you.”
I feel suddenly disappointed.
“I sense that you’re not believing me. Okay. Forget the kids—leave ’em alone.”
“No. That’s the problem. I don’t want to forget the kids, or some of them at least. You know Kenny Rides, right? Comes around here sometimes?”
“Big kid?” He coughs. “Okay, leaves that Star Wars shit?”
“Tell him we don’t like that. We need stuff we can use. Anyway. Where were we? Divided, divided…”
“Oh yes, that’s right. Divided being. Well, lemme say this. Your being is forever divided. This is a good thing. You need to make it a good thing. Believe me. ‘Cuz it never goes away. You know, I’ve done some healing in my time. Sometime I’ll tell you the story of Burnt Face—Indian kid, divided being such as yourself. Good jump shot. Comes here. I tell him this division gives him special powers. Boom, he’s got special powers.”
“Do I have special powers?”
“Why not? Indian, white, what the hell.”
He hoists the cigarette to his lips and sucks again, inhales, exhales.
“Well, that’s all I got today, eh? How about you giving me a few smokes?”
I understand. I turn to get the pack of cigarettes, and when 1 turn back he’s gone. I place a few smokes on the rock.
“Listen!” I begin loudly. “There’s a lot that could be done here! You could do a lot! How about being a guest speaker in my sixth period?”
“Fuck yooooooo!” I hear.
I spend the overheated summer constructing, at traffic lights and diaper changes, arguments for either quitting teaching or for returning in the fall, convinced that the queasy feeling is something more than pure dread.
At least I know the source of the dread: the muck of school-year busyness conspiring to suffocate the truth—the prissy routine of “subjects”; the phony “authority figures” and “role models”; the Steven Covey tripe about “success” and “self-esteem”; narrow-eyed ignorance and suspicion; the gaseous posturing of the national education debate. By the end of the summer, when I’m finally at a loss for any kind of motivation, I blame everything on the low pay and start circling the Help Wanted ads for American Express financial planners, who will surely be in great demand around the reservation in the new prosperity. I’m left with myself, the real culprit.
I see Kenny at the Custer reenactment outside town, in the fallow fields of a beet farm. A huge parking lot fills up with motor homes with names like Intruder and Predator, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and new silver sedans from faraway states. The bleachers are set up on three sides of a field at the bottom of a line of hills. Behind the bleachers spectators shamble up and down a midway, stepping over rubbercovered power cords and piles of horseshit to buy beer or pick through birdhouses and pastel paintings of Indian maidens and mountain men. In trailers on the far side of the field, Indians and whites dress for their parts, while ponies and cavalry mounts wait in corrals. An Indian village representing the vast multination tipi city Custer blundered into has been set up on the other side of the field. Women and children in traditional dress play around the tipis and the arbors.
Sitting next to me, bikers wave American flags and swill beer. I could pick a fight with them or join them—either way I lose. An Indian family arranges itself nearby, the ponytailed father tall, barrel-chested and impassive. Are they here to have fun? While I’m attracted by the promise of seeing Custer and his men get creamed, that part isn’t reenacted. Plus, the people near the crest of the ridge are too small to see clearly—just a lot of smoke and distant shouting. My Crow students, some of them direct descendants of Custer’s Crow scouts, like to talk about what really happened. Here’s what really happened, Mr. Pitts, they whisper luridly. Custer runs down this slope, see, followed by laughing, fucked-up braves, and jumps into the river, where he’s stripped naked by Indian mamas, who stone him to death, cut off his dick, then poke holes in his ears with their sewing awls so he’ll hear good in heaven, better than he did on earth, anyway. In his wake Custer leaves Indians like Kenny, fit for very little in this world, and who are therefore, because they have nothing to lose, the best teachers.
The bleachers themselves suggest the exciting possibility that history might reverse itself; that the annihilation of Custer and his men will spell, as it should have, the end of the white presence on Indian land. Maybe the beer-bellied braves on their ponies will swerve suddenly toward the stands, whooping, hatchets raised.
But nothing much happens in the hot, caramel air.
There’s a parade of Western historical figures. Then Custer, complete with historically inaccurate long blond Barbie curls, and Sitting Bull, holding his sack of a belly like a tanned Florida retiree, dismount and shake hands limply in the center of the arena, “Proud to Be an American” crackling over the loudspeakers. At this point most of the spectators, including some Indians, stand and place their hands over their hearts. At my first reenactment I couldn’t do it, feeling ashamed, and neither could my brothers, so with a few others scattered around the bleachers we sat there looking down into our plastic cups of Bud Light or glancing at each other in disbelief. This second time, I sit, too. Then, through the standing spectators, I see below me Kenny sitting with his mother. “Kenny!” I yell. “Kenny Rides!”
His mother turns around to scan the crowd above her. She elbows Kenny and he turns, grinning. He waves.
I wave back, grinning. I need a marker and some big white pieces of paper.
Poetry Feature: Ellen Bass
Featuring the Poems:
- And What If I Spoke Of Despair
- Be Still my Heart
- Gate C 22 [This poem was featured as Poem of the Week for 10/2/2008]
- 3 A.M. Feeding
And What If I Spoke of Despair
…perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
And what if I spoke of despair—who doesn’t
feel it? Who doesn’t know the way it seizes,
leaving us limp, deafened by the slosh
of our own blood, rushing
through the narrow, personal
channels of grief. It’s beauty
that brings it on, calls it out from the wings
for one more song. Rain
pooled on a fallen oak leaf, reflecting
the pale cloudy sky, dark canopy
of foliage not yet fallen. Or the red moon
in September, so large you have to pull over
at the top of Bayona and stare, like a photo
of a lover in his uniform, not yet gone;
or your own self, as a child,
on that day your family stayed
at the sea, watching the sun drift down,
lazy as a beach ball, and you fell asleep with sand
in the crack of your smooth behind.
That’s when you can’t deny it. Water. Air.
They’re still here, like a mother’s palms,
sweeping hair off our brow, her scent
swirling around us. But now your own
car is pumping poison, delivering its fair
share of destruction. We’ve created a salmon
with the red, white, and blue shining on one side.
Frog genes spliced into tomatoes—as if
the tomato hasn’t been humiliated enough.
I heard a man argue that genetic
engineering was more dangerous
than a nuclear bomb. Should I be thankful
he was alarmed by one threat, or worried
he’d gotten used to the other? Maybe I can’t
offer you any more than you can offer me—
but what if I stopped on the trail, with shreds
of manzanita bark lying in russet scrolls
and yellow bay leaves, little lanterns
in the dim afternoon, and cradled despair
in my arms, the way I held my own babies
after they’d fallen asleep, when there was no
reason to hold them, only
I didn’t want to put them down.
Be Still My Heart
We were a pair. Me stomping off
on those redwood rounds that shifted
in the winter floods—my Kmart sneakers
and turquoise jacket with holes
in the pockets. Keys, toothbrush, drugs
burrowed in the lining like mice.
And you—standing on the patio in your Birkenstocks
and naturally curly hair, screaming
Don’t leave. I love you.
like you were a movie star and we were
going to wind up together at the end of the reel
with rain streaming down.
Only there was no rain and I wasn’t
your lover. Only a soul that God
had forgotten to attach, slipped off
like a poorly sewn button.
For all my two hundred and eighty pounds,
I had no more substance than a sliver of plastic.
Until I met you. And even then
you’d be sitting there smiling, your mouth
going on. I understood as much
as a frog listening to opera.
Trust was still a foreign country
like names we can’t pronounce til there’s a war.
But when you put your arms around me, I thought
Kill me now, Lord.
I figured you’d be glad to get rid of me—
this charity case who didn’t know
the names of any feminist poets,
who had crooked teeth and the waterlogged
skin that comes from too much white bread and Top Ramen.
I figured you’d be glad your Pygmalion experiment had failed
and you could go back to helping all those thin women
in J. Crew clothes who ate sushi
and floated off on guided meditations.
I never imagined you’d act like that, hollering
so all the neighbors could hear, crying and carrying on
for one more chance. I shook each slice
of tree in its lopsided bed of chips
and stood poised
on the last wobbly redwood round
like an elephant on a stool, or someone on a ledge
thirty stories up above the traffic, balancing.
Then, slowly, I pivoted,
executing the first of many
Gate C 22
At gate C 22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like satin ribbons tying up a gift. And kissing.
Like she’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she’d been released from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
she kept saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning
of a calm day at Big Sur, the way it gathers
and swells, taking each rock slowly
in its mouth, sucking it under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching—
the passengers waiting for the delayed flight to San José,
the stewardesses, the pilots, the aproned woman icing
Cinnabons, the guy selling sunglasses. We couldn’t
look away. We could taste the kisses, crushed
in our mouths like the liquid centers of chocolate cordials.
But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still
opened from giving birth, like your mother
must have looked at you,
no matter what happened after—
if she beat you, or left you, or you’re lonely now—
you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off and someone gazing at you
like you were the first sunrise seen from the earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
each of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,
her plaid bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse,
little gold hoop earrings, glasses,
all of us, tilting our heads up.
3 A.M. Feeding
Zeke whines softly and nudges
my door. In the wash of moonlight
his black face gleams level with mine,
the large jaw politely closed, the eyes wide open.
His expression never varies, but I know
what he wants. Yesterday he found a nest
of kittens on the side of the road
and though I can’t hear them mewing, he can.
I’m too old for this, I think
as I throw on a robe and heat a cup of milk
in the microwave. My mother’s in the hospital.
I have to fly back East. What am I doing
saving cats the world has too many of anyway?
The scraps of fur are up, trembling
on their skinny legs. It’s all they can do
to hold up the balloons of their heads.
Their eyes are oozing, swollen shut.
Two take the dropper, but the smallest
doesn’t want to eat at all, opens
her mouth only to cry. Her tongue
is the size of a baby’s thumbnail, and almost
as thin. I pry apart the tiny splinter teeth
and squirt a little milk, most of which
leaks back out. Meanwhile
Zeke is in the zone, nabbing
each one as it wobbles, blindly
into his sphere. He’s serene as a massive
star, culling stray bits of matter
as they wander into his gravitational field.
One at a time, he pins them with a tender
paw and sets about their baths
with his huge, dry tongue.
He’s been at it all day, trotting
back and forth, a zealous waiter,
anxious to bring whatever’s required—
another bottle of wine? more coffee? perhaps
the cheesecake or crème brûlée? Like
Nureyev, Mother Teresa, Stephen King,
he’s found what he was born for.
As I top off the last kitten, Zeke
goes at the bottoms of the others, as their mother
would do, urging them to deliver,
licking up the miniature pees and poops.
And when they’re all finally settled
in the great warm arc of his body, he sighs
and lets his eyelids drift down with satisfaction.
I shuffle back to bed with a prayer:
Let me be Zeke. Let me rush
to each moment with his devotion,
eager to lick even the ass of life.