May 29, 2006
My great-grandfather kept his gas mask in the garage but he never talked about the war. Maybe because it was too horrific, or maybe because he wasn’t one to talk loud or tell stories, or maybe because he didn’t think there was anything to say. Arthur was stern, taciturn, silent, complicit in some of the sins of his time, but he was a good man. He took care of his family, his mentally unstable wife, his divorced daughter and her two sons. He loved baseball and cars, worked his whole life and didn't brag.
"Grandfather," my uncle wrote, "called them niggers. So that I was surprised at how many elderly African American men, all, like my grandfather, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), came to his funeral."
In the family mythology my great-grandfather is always cast opposite his bother-in-law, Newton. Uncle Newton always talked about the war, bragged about what he had done and who he had killed while, in fact, he'd never left the States. Newton was a bastard and a liar and whatever other discrepancies there are, in the family stories, everyone agrees on this. They say he fought the VFW for membership but lost because he'd never been abroad or seen action, and he claimed that Fig Newtons stole his idea or name or both. My father says that when Newton talked his grandfather would leave the room. "The only true thing I ever heard him say," my uncle says, "is that blond hair turns white really fast."
My dad burnt his draft notice. My uncle was a non-religious conscientious objector. When the first Bush fought the first Gulf War, we were the only house in the neighborhood that didn’t hang an American flag over the garage. Like them, I am a Pacifist - opposed to this war, to war, and to violence (especially my own). I never know what to think about Memorial Day. I don't know what it means to support the soldiers but not the war, because anything anyone says about the soldiers always seems to just be a way to say something about the war, to slip in a political opinion where it won't be argued, where it will be supported by the troops.
When John came home, back from Iraq, they had him stand up in church. Honoring him as a hero. It’s an evangelical church and the pastor’s family gives the contribution limit to the Republican Party and they have the Young Republican’s meeting is in the pastor’s house and when he asked John to stand up he said that this church was "supporting our soldier." My brother says the guys all gathered around him after church and listened to him talk. He says that later John started having flashbacks and nightmares, that John said they'd killed kids and it had seemed like the only option and that somtimes the kids'd been armed but now he didn't know. Now he had nightmares and flashbacks and he'd told the pastor and the pastor'd said he did what he had to do and that God understood but no one ever told the people in the church they still look at him like he's a hero.
There’s a letter here from Fez. I never met Fez but he used to go to the school here and come to the bible studies here and here's his letter in pencil on Army stationary signed with his full Saudi name. Tomorrow, he says, they're going to throw them in groups in the woods and give them three hours to find their way back. "That should be fun," he says, "other than the rain. I've mostly avoided racial stereotypes." Everyone agrees it's a bad time to be an Arab in the army, but his only other choice was to go home like his parents wanted and join the Saudi Arabian army and everyone agrees that would be worse. So this was his best bad option. His letter's here and his address is up on the chalkboard and there're some notes they're going to send him. I keep looking at them and wanting to write him, to say something. I don't think there's anything I could say, though, or anyway not anything that would make sense.
"Dear Fez," I would write, "you don't know me. My great-grandfather kept his gas mask in the garage but he never talked about the war."
May 25, 2006
The buses come up the little side street hill with a dry coughing rev and then there’s a pause to drift and then they give the long hiss of air brakes as they come to a stop at the bus stop-stop sign. Across the street two skeletal cranes reenact in pantomime some battle between monsters, silhouetting swinging arms and booms against the sky.
Sometimes someone’s standing there, watching the cranes or the construction, and then the black door opens up to the inside. Sometimes no one’s there and the bus stays closed, the windows black but untinted and showing as shadows the shapes of the driver in the nose and the passengers back in the belly.
One after another they come like train cars linked together. Bus upon bus, outnumbering even the cars. They stop at the corner in clusters. Two at a time and three at a time, rev-pause-hiss, rev-pause-hiss. Someone said they once saw six all stop at once, but I’ve only ever seen four. They all seem empty or half empty and seem to go on unnumbered. For some reason they make me slightly paranoid. Listening for them and watching them now for days, I have a theory that they’re going in circles.
I think they go around the block or around a couple of blocks, driving eight-hour shifts of loops, turning right and turning right and right and right to cut down this one-way side street with the one left turn. I think if I could see them from the sky, from a seat up high in the cranes, I’d see a circle of white-topped busses forming a turning circle around me.
My sister says that’s silly, that each bus has a designated number and a placard saying where it’s going and that they’re all going to different places. Some of them, she says, aren’t stopping but passing by. But if that’s so then what I’m seeing is a great convergence, like this is some secret center of the city known only to buses and drivers and now to me, the center point where every route for a moment joins, comes together and brakes and then breaks apart to separate again.
If I stand there by the street, by the mailbox, by the trash cans turned over on the curb, every bus will open its doors to offer the step up, to let me step inside and see. What if I climbed in, what if I stepped up and sat back by the middle window and watched? Maybe I’d end up back on my doorstep, shown the circle completed and returned, or maybe I’d end up in some abandoned corner of the city at the far end of a one-way line or in whatever underground garage with the mechanics doing overhauls and the janitors hosing down the rubber floor mats.
The drivers look down at me to see how much I know, to see which way I’ll go, and I look distracted and, I hope, innocent, shifting my weight to the other leg. They close the doors, shutting me off again and taking the turn away up to the main street.
May 20, 2006
Somebody, somewhere, dropped a penny on its side. They dropped it on its side or bounced it on its side, somewhere up the parking lot hill and here it comes rolling. Copper coated zinc with Lincoln looking backwards, somehow rolling improbably past the black top cracks and the cigarette butts and pebbles and potholes and lost screws. It bounces and rolls, and jumps and rolls, wobbly but still upright, a little fleck of copper rounding down and making a whirling sound.
I was standing at the pump, leaning on the truck with the pump's latch letting gas gurgle into the tank and the radio played something Beatles and I heard it, nicking and knocking and whirring in the long filliping roll down, the sound of the flat edge against uneven asphalt. I heard it, somehow over the Cleveland St. cars and the Chevron fill-ups. I looked up and looked for it, finding the copper flash with the memorial mausoleum spinning like a hub cap, like spinners and spokes.
Joe used to give me the pennies he found, the face-down ones. He was the person I knew who prayed the rosary and had white hair growing out of his ears and every weekend he’d drive his big truck out to the casinos to play poker on the slots and at the tables. He always said he'd won, if not that day, then in the long run. The face-ups were good luck and the downs were bad, so he'd always check. He'd squat over abandoned pennies to see and pick them up and wipe them down to read the date and mint letter and to see if they said IN GOD WE TRUST or E PLURIBUS UNUM. The ones that were down, he said you had to give them away or they'd be bad luck, the bad luck down-facing pennies were good luck, if you gave them away.
The penny rolled past me, back of the pickup, and slowed down and did a loop, a large right hand circle turning into itself and into a wobble. It collapsed with a shake and a rattle and I put the pump away to see what it said. It's a 50-50 chance and even the bad luck 50 can be flipped. This is the only game of chance where there’s really no way to loose but still for some reason I wanted to see. I wanted to know what it said even though I know there’s nothing it could say. Somehow, I needed to see if my penny came up for good luck even though that was the only way it could come up.
A suited black man in a black Mercedes looked back over his shoulder at me, suspiciously. Up the hill, from where the penny came, two women in a telephone booth looked down to try and see what I was looking at. I was in the driveway by the street bending over to find it. I found it between a dead weed and a round rock, Lincoln silently staring out at the road.
May 17, 2006
May 15, 2006
May 10, 2006
May 8, 2006
Cutting back to where we began
Before there are roses, before they are made, there are only pieces. Somewhere they grow the roots, and somewhere else they grow the flowers.
The flowers are delicate, weak-wooded and willing to fall to bugs and weather and rot. They're guarded in greenhouses and they bloom there, once in a test bloom, and the buds explode into colors. It happens in the morning when the sky is right and the sun is shining and the whole flower-house glows green and then the colors open – red and white, yellow and pink and purple and orange, burgundy and black in every manner of variation and variegation. They bloom in bushes of four, five, six, ten, twelve, and twenty. Each color catches the morning and takes it for it's own and the gardeners gush and give the flowers the names of the blushes of celebrities and goddesses.
The root flowers come up strong, thick-willed and thorny. They grow in rows straight into the ground where the weeds are cut back a little ways. The bugs come and land and look, but leave again. The water gathers around their roots but the rootstock pieces pull it in, suck it in between the grit of dirt and take it to make themselves stronger. The temperatures rise and fall and the sun comes and goes. They bloom there, they bloom there too, out in the ground, but they bloom plain and simple and unnamed and every one colored the same.
And then, one day after the root flowers bloom and the bloom flowers bloom, they’re all taken up together. They're wrapped in burlap and wetted and placed in crates on trucks. The trucks take them from somewhere and they take them from somewhere else and they take them all to a factory. On that day all the roses are brought to their makers, to rows of anonymous women wearing gloves, holding knives and shears and tape. Cut and spliced, hacked and grafted, separated and sewn, the rootstock is taken and joined to the bloom-stock and the two stocks grow like that, knotted together. The rootless flowers are fused to the flowerless roots. They're cut together, healed over, and tagged with the word, the sweet name "rose." There civilization begins, and a rose is a rose.
Before you can begin to prune, you have to know this. Before you can unlatch the blades of the shears, before you can slide them from the sheath and feel the weight balance in your hand, this story must be told: Once there was a gardener who didn't know about before, who didn't know there was a time before roses were roses, before they had their name, back before when they were just the pieces. There was this gardener and he pruned some roses. They weren't cheap roses picked up anywhere but nice ones. Sometimes they say they were imported from France or England or India. Sometimes, purchased as a wedding present from one rich family for another. The gardener pruned the roses, cut them back to joint and bud, cut them cleanly and the juice oozed in little rings around their throats. He cut them like he had heard to cut them and he waited and then they bloomed like no other roses had bloomed. There were twice as many flowers and the flowers were twice as big. Children playing the street stopped to gawk. Neighbors out for a walk said they were amazing, astounding, incredible. The woman who owned the yard and who owned the flowers rolled down her window, the next time she saw the gardener, and she leaned out of her window so far that her necklace swung against the paint of the door.
I can't believe what you've done to my roses, she said. You must have a green thumb, a divine blessing, an ancient secret. They've just been gorgeous all week and everyone's said so. Thank you, this is just astounding.
Then the gardener went to the roses again. Sometimes the teller claims to be that gardener, sometimes to know him, and sometimes just to have heard the story as you’re hearing it now. That gardener went again to the roses in the rich person’s yard and he cut them like he had before. He heard the clean shear slicing and the sap spilled over the blades and he cut them back, back to bud and branch, except that this time he passed the line. He didn’t know how to see it, the bark knotting over the break between the root and bloom, the graft-point joining the pieces that make up a rose. No one told him what I’m telling you, that a rose is not a rose, is never one rose but always two.
When he returned the roses were ruined. They'd bloomed again, flushed up towards the sun but all in one weak color. The celebrities were gone. The goddesses were gone. The whole display of colors was cut away, replaced by flowers that didn't even have names.
This is the story they tell, but I wonder. Every time I've held a pair of shears, someone starts that story. Because they're grafted, I'll say to cut them off, but they always tell it long. Owners tell it and old gardeners tell it and anyone who prunes and gives advice tells that warning, but I don't know. I wonder if it wasn’t an accident. Maybe he knew.
Maybe he saw the secret and wanted it to be revealed, saw the captured roots and wanted to open them to the air. The story's set up to preserve the make up as it is now known, to prefer the pretty blooms, to always go with the exotic. But what if he saw those knots and wanted to undo them. I think he saw those grafts, layered over in new-grown bark and hidden down behind the leaves, and felt some urgent call to cut back to before the wound.
I feel it, holding the shears in my hand dyed black and green, callused with dirt and leaves and sap. The scissored blades slide oiled over each other, making a sound you can't describe, the sound of cutting back to old rejected ways, to out-of-fashion flowers that could have grown, to pale and brambly flowers with five plain pedals. I feel the urge to cut it all back, just to see how it would be.
May 7, 2006
May he rest in peace.
May 5, 2006
Originally, he intended to eat them. That was the plan. That was the reason. That was the reason that professor always told people why he’d come here, when they’d ask him why, why’d you leave all that pay, why’d you have to go so far away. He’d tell them, crabs.
This place had the best crabs in the world. There was the mountains and there was the sea and between the thin stretch of a nose, a sandy flat and marshy land pushing out into the sea and all along the edges there the crabs crawled sideways, ten-legged and two-pinchered and mean. The stretch of land there was named after the crabs. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, the way it was now was the land was named for the crabs and the crabs for the land and the two were identical, and that was his reason.
That was the reason he’d gone down on the first day of the seasons, gone down to the docks in the early morning when the first of the boats came back. The salt was still drying and dripping off the boats, off the funnel ends of the pots and the flat red backs of the crabs. The professionals were there at their first day of work and the amateurs were taking a day off and he walked down among them and found a few he liked and bought them.
He bought two. The fisherman wrapped pink rubber bands around the claws and put them in salt water in a pot and said, there you go. Fresh. The professor took the salt water pot and the manacled crabs and took them home to his wife. He put the pot on the stove and left it there for later.
Later, that day in the evening, he came back. He looked in the pot and the crabs were there. They were fighting. The one on the left was pushing. Out in front of him he had his rubber-banded claws and he was pushing the other crab back into the pot wall. He’d push and the other crab would look at him and get pushed smack into the wall and then he’d fight back. He’d bring up his claws, red claws absurd in pink rubber bands, and he’d fight back. He’d push off the wall, pushed too far, and the left crab would drive the right one back to the middle of the pot before he’d quit, and stop, and the right one would push him back again.
Hey honey, the professor called. I’m going to call this one Sisyphus and this other one Achilles.
What? she said from the other room and he said, the one’s always pointlessly pushing and the other always gives up but gets pushed too far and comes back fighting.
She laughed, but more like he was funny than like it was funny. And she knew then too that he was going to keep them. He wasn’t going to cook them, boil them so the shells would scream with escaping air and they’d eat them on the porch picking out the meat with the claws. She would have complained, maybe she should have, but they already had a poodle and a parakeet and a parrot and a bull dog and a cat and she couldn’t think of a reason to say they shouldn’t have a couple of crabs.
The next day he bought a tank. It was a salt water tank bubbling back into itself so it always hummed. It hummed and it gargled so you could hear it from anywhere in the house. He set it in the living room between the bookshelves. Sisyphus and Achilles, he said, both of them heros, each of them in their own way trying and failing to give up. He liked to watch them, in the lighted tank in a dark room. He’d listen to Mozart on the radio over the static and watch them, dusky red and rubber-banded, the one pushing and then the other pushing back.
The professor watched them that way all the way through crab season and into the spring. The sea grass flowered again and their bladders filled out red and rubbery and floated at the edge of salt eddies. He watched them into the next crab season and then he thought one night that he was like God, watching this struggle go on forever and how at any time he could stop it. He could stop it. He could have stopped it but he’d have to decide which of them he preferred. He’d have to take the side of the one that never gave up or the one that was always trying to, and he didn’t know how to do that.