A Variation on 22 First Lines

 

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[the poem consists of the first lines of 22 books; each line is footnoted. If any of these lines leap out at you , run out and get the book(s). And if you’re ever in Galway, get over to Charlie Byrne’s (http://charliebyrne.com/). Gratitude, admiration, and apologies to each of the authors quoted here. Italicized lines are my own. ]

Scanning Books at Charlie Byrne’s

i.
Wonderfully, it was the boy-[i]
The cancer-ridden only son of a dangerous driver who has thoughts about turning herself into a man[ii]
-
Who saw the gods leave,
Wicking away like water off a skillet.

They departed on the day of the strange tide.[iii]
The plane was nearly empty.

Disease is a fundamental aspect of the human condition.[iv]
‘I’ve been knitting voraciously since I was seventeen.’[v]
He said this to a lover once.
‘I think it is what cured me.’

The premise that there is basic human wisdom that can help to solve the world’s problems: [vi]
It’s what he has replaced Them with
This boy now man
A book: 12 years in the writing
49 years in the making.[vii]
At first glance, it looks very similar to its predecessor[viii]
Pages thin,
Transparent,
You can read the next one through the last.

He drives across Ireland,
A gentle rain, as light as breath,
That soaks him to the skin.
Surely They’re here somewhere;
Hiding is not the same as escape,
Except for when it is.

He settles for the cows.
Blind with highway hypnosis
He has pulled onto a muddy verge, stepped out, watches.
His glasses fog.

Cows have no need of gods, he thinks
They have no need of stories
For them, the present is sufficient
It’s never been for him.

One protests in the rain, the others are silent, damp, standing, pacing, lying down
Tails swishing
Rain in their eyes
Audible chewing
A waft of manure

Women in the river, singing.[ix]

Some that once were here are gone now
Others have yet to arrive
Tucked against their mothers’ flanks
Wondering why they’ve come

If cows wonder.

They don’t, he decides.
They merely are.

Unaccustomed to driving on the left,
He’d clipped a couple curbs
Little Left, Big Right
He couldn’t get too nervous, couldn’t think about how nervous
Or it would be all over.
Critical thinking is something we all do, but we are not necessarily aware of it.[x]

Bó.
In Irish, this is what they’re called.
He makes a point of tackling the language
Of every place he’s ever been.
(A highly inflected and idiomatic language, Irish presents a great challenge for learners.)[xi]

I might be the villain of this story, he thinks. Even now, it’s hard to tell.[xii]

ii.
Words come first, a grid of squares, a puzzle on the plane:
ACROSS:
1. Fastenings
2. Krishna __________
3. Trouble
4. Dickens name[xiii]

Voices next,
In Ireland
People here temporarily,
For different reasons,
Fuzzy with jetlag.
The lives touch across time for a moment
,
Make a little knot of noise
Then go their separate ways
A handful of people
(the palm of God; He doesn’t care what you believe)

And finally, lives, some little moments that will someday go in stories:

Three days shy of her 15th birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.[xiv]

In the early 90s (it might have been 1992, but it’s hard to remember when you’re having a good time) I joined a rock-and-roll band composed mostly of writers.[xv]

Dear Franklin,
You know, I try to be polite.[xvi]

Some that once were here are gone now
Others have yet to arrive:

On the evening of March 27, 1969,
My father was in Leningrad,
In pursuit of his advanced engineering degree.[xvii]

Nine days after Mama disappeared I heard she was throwing down with Shelton Potter.[xviii]

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.[xix]

Do not set foot in my office.[xx]

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.[xxi]

Both before he came here
And after he departs
Each of them has seen, will see
What he is seeing now.

Human life, so bound up in stories
That we are thoroughly desensitized to their weird and witchy power.[xxii]

Order’s inescapable
Big Right
Little Left
Is that the form they’ve taken now, the fickle, absent Gods?
Perhaps they’ve been here all along
In cancers,
Cures
On planes
In puzzles
The hand-lift waves of passing drivers

The gods are maybe ours to conjure
Sure and the stories are ours to tell
Hanging here, in veils of mist
Before and yet to come

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@Melinda Rooney, 2017, with acknowledgement to copyrights of quoted authors

[i] Ireland, Frank Delaney

[ii] Ithaca, Alan McMonagle

[iii] The Sea, John Banville

[iv] Mania, A Short History of Bipolar Disorder, David Healy

[v] Alterknit Stitch Dictionary, Andrea Rangel

[vi] Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chögyam Trungpa

[vii] Absent Voices, Rochelle Altman

[viii] The Pamphlet Debate: On the Union Between Great Britain and Ireland, W. J. McCormack

[ix] Arcadia, Lauren Groff

[x] The Art of Deception, Nicholas Capaldi

[xi] Irish Grammar, Nollaig Mac Congáil

[xii] The Borrower, Rebecca Makkai

[xiii] New York Times Sunday Crossword Omnibus, Vol. 2, Ed. Will Weng

[xiv] Tenth of December, George Saunders

[xv]On Writing, Stephen King

[xvi] We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver

[xvii] The Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon

[xviii]Sweetgirl, Travis Mulhauser

[xix]The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

[xx] Black Swan Green, David Mitchell

[xxi] Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

[xxii] The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall

 

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies

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Part 1: Trick or Treat
Riley Detmer, age 9

Why do I always have to be doing something?  Mom and Dad all the time ‘what are you doing?’ How does a bag save a planet?

I don’t know.  I think this is going to be my last year.  I was too young and now I’m too old to remember when it was fun. The one story I always hear is how I went through my entire candy bag when I was three and a bumblebee, ran around like I was crazy and stopped in the middle of my grandparents’ all white almost empty living room and turned white like a ghost bee and barfed all over the floor.

I mean, that doesn’t sound very fun.

unknown-5Last year I was 8 and I wanted to be Wolverine from X-men. Wolverine could save the planet better than a bag. The answer was no. The reason was my mom said Wolverine made violent choices and didn’t think of better ways to solve a problem. Is that really what you want to be Riley she said which the answer was yes. Is that a part of yourself you think is okay? she said. What if I don’t have the claws I said. She shook her head. Nice people are the real heroes she said.

This happens a lot. I used to get mad about it but finally I stopped. Getting mad is a violent choice and besides it just makes her talk more. I ended up being a fireman with a plastic helmet and coat that looked totally fake.

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When I was 7 I wanted to be a Apache brave which we were learning in school. This was also no because we shouldn’t take things from the Indians and we also should not be calling them Indians. You’re a lucky little boy because you are privileged she said, and that means you can’t take things that aren’t yours and make fun of Native Americans. I said I am not making fun. If I am privileged I said I wonder why does that mean I can’t pick my costume and be whatever I want. This was before I stopped arguing about everything. Plus it was totally confusing because Wyatt who is 5 and my brother was Ariel from Little Mermaid. But Ariel is a girl I said. Wyatt can make that choice my mom said. We can’t tell him how he should express himself. But I want to express myself and be a Apache brave I said. Wyatt is not a girl I said. Riley, she said. Stop making fun of your brother. This is along with my friend Chloe at school who was a artist with a french hat called a beret because she was not allowed to be Ariel from Little Mermaid because it is not what little girls should want to be. So Wyatt got to be Ariel with a boob thing made of two plastic seashells and a tail thing with sequins.  I don’t know why but I just wanted to hit him really hard. And I was a cowboy because it is okay I guess to make fun of them.

imagesWhen I was 6 we didn’t do Halloween because refined sugar. When I was 5 I wanted to be a hobo with a stick but that was no for some reason too so my mom made my costume without even asking me which was a bunch of grapes made of balloons. I was mad and got a timeout. Before that I don’t remember except the story about barfing which is not really a thing I remember but just a thing they told me that happened.

So I think this will be my last year. I don’t know what I will be. I guess I will wait for Mom to tell me. But I will take this bag because those plastic pumpkins with handles are stupid and for babies and I swear to God I will argue about that if I have to.

That is what I am doing.

Part #2: Domesticity
Amy Wallace-Detmer, age 38

What am I doing? What does it look like? I’m putting away the goddamned groceries.  There’s a guy who loads them into my car at the store but once I’m home I’m on my own. It’s easier than trying to get the boys to help me.  I pick my battles.

I remember you. Back when I was young, in that big old first wave of recycling, you all were saying the same thing. And now it’s back, and the bags are back, asking questions: a successful campaign; why wouldn’t it be successful again?

But I’ll ask you a question back:  What did it succeed at?  Do people shop more at stores with bags that sneer at them?  I saw lots of you tumbling empty through parking lots, wadded up in garbage cans.  Just what was it you were trying to accomplish?

All you have to do is wait long enough and everything comes back around again.

You can be reused 125 times.  Well, we have that in common, at any rate. In fact, I may very well have you beat. And will I reuse you? Not likely. I never think to bring bags along until I’m in the car. They pile up under the sink. So you are not the first bag to ask me that question. I’ll stuff you down there and you can all trade saving-the-planet stories, congratulate yourselves in a crinkly little cocktail-party mumble.  I’ll pull one out to carry wet bathing suits, clean the litter box, load up with some stuff to take over to Dad on the days Meals on Wheels doesn’t come, give to Riley and Wyatt for trick or treating.

That snuck up on me. I used to be better about holidays. Now I’m always running along behind them, like the kids. I thought I had parenthood nailed, once: cupcakes one year topped with orange frosting and spiders with gum-drop bodies and licorice-whip legs, a dozen of them, for Riley’s pre-K. I was up until 3. I wanted to do everything for him, which might’ve been a mistake. He’s become so passive. It kept me anchored, the routines, the recipes, the things it was okay or not okay to do or be or read or say.

I am a parent. Everything is my fault.

You’d like Ted, bag.  He is saving the planet, or the people on it with cancer, at any rate.  Does that count?  You and he would get along, trading smug challenges and debating the finer points of planet-saving. He’s always taken care of me, from the time he met me when he was rounding through the psych unit as a med student. I was glad I’d washed my hair. He saved me, I guess you could say–so it would be peevish to criticize. But I sometimes think he loves that he saved me more than he loves me.

I love him. I do.

That said, there’s a whole continuity of care issue–I stole that from him–when it comes to the boys.  He’s never around, in other words, to see things and watch things, which to me means that he’s not in a super-good place to worry out loud that our kids are always trying to comfort me and settle me down and that that is bad for them, that I am always trying to control them, and that that is bad for them, when all I am doing is trying to keep them safe, calm, confident, on the right path. And maybe they could want to comfort me sometimes? Is that such a bad thing? Aren’t we all supposed to kind of look after each other? Isn’t loving someone enough to want to comfort them a good thing?

I mean, Ted, stick to cancer, okay?  Help me out by not suggesting maybe I should’ve gone back to work, which implies there was work to go back to: B.A. in Music, Minor in Astronomy? As my mother once said, ‘Now, there’s a lucrative career path.’ Maybe only remind me of the psych unit a few times a year, the checking account I emptied to make that model of the universe, the run of not-so-wise intimate encounters, the inanimate objects like cell phones and shopping carts coming to life and trying to hurt me, you know, the suicide stuff after.  Holidays, maybe. Mention it on holidays. Halloween. Last year I got that haunted house place across town to close down the room that was supposed to be a mental hospital full of wackos, but it’s funny; I couldn’t really work up a big old head of steam about it. Stigma, it’s called, but that’s just another word for being afraid: their problem, not mine.  Crazy people have bigger fish to fry: med compliance, shrink after shrink, bloodwork, behavioral coping therapies, insurance, revolving fucking door policies.  I was lucky.  The meds finally caught and held, never let go after that, and I never let go of them. I joke to people that I am a professional patient.  I am my own job.

There is really nothing wrong with being afraid of crazy.  I mean, I have enough trouble with what I think; I have to decide how others think now too?  I mean, I try to say the right things, have the right feelings, arrange them neatly, like setting a table for company.

You’ve got enough job for two people, Ted. It all balances out.

Meanwhile, well, yeah, groceries.  And the phone call to that woman at the managed care place; my father’s going nowhere fast. And Riley’s waiting for me to tell him what he wants for a costume. Like I would know. I don’t understand why he doesn’t want to decide on his own anymore. I don’t know why Wyatt wants to be a girl.

I just don’t want them to be crazy. That is all I don’t want.

So, yeah. Not real interested in saving the planet. I’ve got other things on my plate. But you go right on ahead.

That is what I am doing.

Part 3: Music of the Spheres
Conrad Wallace, age 68

What am I doing? I’m going through Amy’s things. And I guess you’re the bag I’m not supposed to open but must be sure not to leave behind or throw away, her machine-gun instructions from the unit, over the phone, what the docs called pressured speech, don’t open it, Dad, and don’t even fucking think about throwing it away, it might look like garbage to you but that’s because you don’t get it, you never got it, I had to ride this goddamned genius train all by myself, feel the music all around and align my body to it like a tuning fork, Dad, do you even know what a fucking tuning fork is, Dad? Of course you don’t, because you don’t get it.

She was never a cusser.

‘It’s a work-in-progress, Dad, a model, I’m helping the structure perfect itself, capture the music, make it audible to everyone. And if you throw it away like everything else you’ve always dismissed and made fun of–‘

‘Honey, I never–‘

‘Shut up Dad! Shut the fuck up, Dad! You don’t get to talk! I’m giving you simple instructions.  You throw away that bag and that will be the end of us.  The end of Amy and Dad at the planetarium. No more music for us.’

So the work in progress, and boxes of books, sheaves of sheet music, clothes, sheets and towels, a giant pair of men’s basketball sneakers, a small pair of briefs that I tweeze from the floor like a dead animal. One man? Two? The guy she brought to our house for dinner once and spent the evening fondling, scratching his back under his shirt, murmuring in his ear as her mother and I sat and watched, our food cold lumps in our mouths?  There were a lot of them, when things got bad. It was how you knew they were getting bad. There was no stopping that either.

And you, bag, heavy, clanking like pirate’s loot and knotted tightly at the top, everything goes into the U-Haul, again, another failed flight for Amy, again, her third school in as many years, the meds make me fat and stupid, Dad, I’m meant for bigger things, I can’t fuck, I can’t sleep, I can’t wake up. I know how to balance this.

I read her a story once about Phaethon, the son of the sun, his father had made him a promise: ask me for anything and it is yours, swore on a sacred river. And he asked to drive his father’s chariot dawn to dusk across the sky. Myths were my music when I was a kid; I thought I might grow up to be a writer once (‘Now there’s a lucrative career path,’ my practical wife told me, not unkindly). The sun balked and begged his son, please don’t make me keep that promise, it is more than you can do, the horses are wild, but he had sworn on a sacred river, that is of course what a promise to a child must be, unbreakable,  and Phaethon was stubborn like kids always are, convinced he could control the uncontrollable and he took off and the horses sensed his tentative hold on the reins and went wild and the chariot tipped down toward the earth and set it alight, the fire spreading so quickly birds burned in the trees, then veered back up and just as fast it froze, charred branches locked up in layers of ice, the chariot’s axle snapping, Phaethon falling into the sea, slipping between the waves, and he was gone.

Oh, her baby-bird wings, no escape velocity, she peaked for a moment in the sky, pausing as if taking a breath of surprise–Jesus, how did I get up here–like one of the model rockets she made dozens upon dozens of once, her fingers peeling with hardened glue, gunpowder on the air, then turning nose down, plummeting to the ground.  Again.

I was old when she came, closing in on 50.  Her mother, too, 45.  An accident after we’d given up, a wish we no longer made. Was it that? That we’d stopped hoping? Was it faulty sperm? A stale old egg like a wrinkled pea? She was odd from the beginning, never cracked a smile. She never knew happy.

I am a parent.  Everything is my fault.

And here is the present moment again, life is a messy pile of them, I’m poised on it, weaving, like a drunken gymnast on a bar, the present only starts to make sense once it isn’t the present anymore. The past falling away behind me, her sweaty hand in mine, the future dim in front of me, will she come back this time? Will she ever have a nice house, the right meds, a couple of kids, a husband who maybe won’t be real warm but helps her stay on track, will always come to save her, kind of like me, who feels for her the kind of love he’s capable of feeling on his best days?   Will they have a piano? Will daily things replace her magic flights?

Will she be okay with that? Will she be okay?

My knees ache as I bend to drag stuff out from under the bed, my neck twangs as I pull posters from the cinder-block walls, her roommate silent in the doorway, owl-eyed, who called the Student Health Center three days ago, got the hospital ball rolling. Again.

I think it burned her brain a little, each time. A smell came off her: carbon, model rockets. When she was a kid there wasn’t a name for it. Then, suddenly, there was.  And it turns out it did. Burn her brain, I mean. An electrical storm. The psychiatrist used those exact words.

She used to love explaining things. I’ve always been good at having things explained to me. I like to think she loved me for that. I’d take her to the zoo, the Natural History museum, the aquarium on the Sundays when her mom went for coffee and an afternoon with her journal, but she loved the planetarium the most. We’d sit in the soft movie-theater seats, a curved acoustic-tiled heaven within a heaven, pinpoints of light, a man’s deep voice-over edged with static, explaining, and she’d name the planets above us, trace their orbits.

The music came later, flowing out her fingers into white keys, stretched strings, padded hammers. I took out a little loan for the piano, the lessons, the expensive schools. She’d sit and watch the tuner work his magic, striking keys, adjusting wires, damping pedals.

I sit back on the floor for a minute, stretch the stiff out of my knees, look around at all the crap, don’t know where to begin. And you sit there, I look over at you again: ‘I’m saving the planet.’  As though you are inviting me with a weird plastic sympathy to look inside: maybe this will vindicate her. Maybe she really is on to something.  Maybe the third time’s a charm, where the crazy finally burns away to leave a bright star of brilliance. Maybe you really do hold magic, the mechanism she began to describe over the phone six weeks ago, screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-3-59-23-pmshe’d never made anything before, this was new, an hysterical thread running through her voice, dead men whispering, Pythagoras, Kepler, the music of the spheres, hidden ratios, that unheard song, the cycles of the planets, the stringed instruments of bodies, one cannot hear nor align with the other, she’d found a way to do that, emptied her checking account buying the materials and the tools, was embarked on the design and construction of the tool that would make it possible, she ticked the list off during another phone call, this one at 3 a.m.: a jeweler’s drill, sheets of brass, a tiny saw, rubber hammer, watch springs, threaded screws that would pass through the eye of a needle.

People need to hear it, Dad. People need to hear it.

Then the Health Center called, then the Dean. Then I got in the truck and drove to the hospital.  Then I stood outside the ancient spacecraft airlock doors of the unit, waited for the burly male nurse who’d greeted me twice before–a former Marine, maybe? his hair was so short, his crossed arms behind the chicken-wire glass as big around as my thighs, I looked like him once–to buzz me in, took that short instant alone to drop my head into my hands, feel my legs begin to go, feel the wail run through me, aligning me with that silent chord of the universe, escaping, my mouth shaping it into her name.

I don’t have room for any of this stuff anymore, her mother’s death only made the house smaller, I guess I’ll rent a locker. That way there’s a chance she’ll come get it, a chance she’ll come back to earth, heft the heavy lock in her palm, scroll in the combination, slide open the door.

But meanwhile in this present that makes no sense yet I drag you acrogears_watch_piless and up and into my lap, work the knot with my fingers, give up, tear you stem to stern. Tiny gears and crookedly sawn tiny lengths of brass, sharp enough to draw blood, and the tools, a miniature disaster, chaos in a bag, clashing, crashing notes. I gather them up in my hands, let them fall, and they jingle and ring with trapped music.

That is what I am doing.

Part 4: Do No Harm
Ted Detmer, Age 46

What am I doing. Well. Do you want the methodical answer, or the existential one? I’ll confess, as a research physician, that I prefer the former. My cocktail-party rap about my research is that I am in the business of blocking microscopic traffic.  You see, there are these proteins. Well (*chuckle*, sips drink), that’s pretty much all there are, actually. But the ones I’m interested in are the ones that block other proteins from rushing like repair teams to damaged DNA, lashing it back together before it collapses like a rickety ladder or a rope bridge across a chasm. If my interlocutor’s eyes haven’t glazed over by now, he or she might ask ‘well, why would you want to block something that fixes damage?’ I then can give him or her the lip-twitch ironic smile I’ve been perfecting since high school and say ‘well, what if that DNA codes for cancer cells?’ Depending on how late the party has gone, it can take from seconds to a full minute for this to sink in.

The War on Cancer. Dramatic, sexy, an heroic standoff with the forces of chaos. But cancer is really quite methodical, tedious even.  It makes petty plans and carries them out pretty much the way people do: sophisticated but often fucked up communication, ill-advised liaisons, mixed messages, amassing of armies, sabotage, subterfuge, disguise.

All you really have to know is how to look really closely, for a really long time, at really small things, and be willing to do that over and over and over again.

I once thought I’d work with patients, but that was the existential end of the continuum and it turned out not to suit me: too many variables, or too few.  I realized this very early on, my third year of med school, rounding through the psych unit where I met my wife. I saw it as a choice: I could try to slam the gate after the horse had escaped, talk patients down as I scrambled for a treatment, an explanation, a reason to fight, or I could climb into the stall myself, corner that fucking horse at the molecular level and take him out.

So let’s go with methodical: I’m emptying out a bag of things I found in Wyatt’s closet. In order of extraction, I find the following:

  1. child’s plastic princess crown, symmetrical placement of false gems in a blue, clear, pink, green, yellow progression, one (pink) missing
  2. small plastic sandals, colloquially termed ‘mules,’ pink, with a kitten heel and a vamp made of puffy pink and white synthetic feathers
  3. child-sized kimono-style robe, red synthetic satin, machine-embroidered floral details at hem, collar and sleeves
  4. iridescent, semi-translucent rainbow-hued scarf, fabric unknown

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It is perhaps more challenging to identify and assess my reaction (mouth goes dry, heart rate quickens, mood darkens and edges toward anger: he has hidden them! he has deceived me! we had an agreement!), and it is unclear whether it would serve any useful purpose: it is familiar and chaotic at once; it is both fully aware and utterly bewildered.  It explains everything and nothing at all.

None of this is new; he has had the scarf since he was 3, snatched from a bin at Goodwill while shopping with his mother. He enjoyed lying on his back and arranging it over his face so that the world bloomed into color as he looked up through it. He danced, flounced, squealed, *lisped*: behaviors I’d always understood as learned, acquired, socially and politically inflected, and have now been forced to attribute to…what?  Where could he have learned this? Where acquired? At 3?

This is where my reaction gets chaotic, and hence not helpful, and I have borne this in mind when I have talked to Wyatt, who is old enough, at 5, to be talked to; old enough, at 5, to understand that there are things you do, and things you don’t do, depending on who you are. We don’t get to decide what we are any more than we get to decide whether or not to be born. It is not about *us.*  We are all prisoners of our bodies: capricious, prone to failure, stubbornly insistent on being what they are. The sooner peace can be made with that, well, let’s just say I want to spare my son the exhausting and futile task of trying to make himself into whatever he wants to be.

It’s just not that simple.

These things are scripted, okay? DNA is an instruction manual: what you will become, how, when, everything but the why. We don’t get to write it.  It writes us.

Trust me.  I’m a doctor.

So I was methodical with Wyatt, a year ago, and it appeared to gain purchase: you are a boy, Wyatt; it is what you are. These things are what girls do, and I don’t want you to feel confused. We reached an agreement, I thought: together he and I gathered up the clothing, the toys, the Barbies with their tiny pointy shoes, the kitchen things, the toy vacuum cleaner (such oppressive roles!), the miniature cosmetics, all the girl stuff (Amy has poor boundaries with these things, more often than not simply buying him what he asks for rather than asking why or- and I don’t think she has this in her- simply saying no), and boxed them up for his new little cousin in Seattle, just born into her body, just beginning to sense the limits, the possibilities, the finite number of options.

And then his mother allowed him to be a Disney mermaid for Halloween, dismantling it all with one swoop. ‘There are things we just don’t understand, Ted,’ she said. ‘But we can understand what he wants.’
‘He doesn’t know what he wants!’ I shouted.  ‘He made a deal with me, Amy. We had an agreement. We gave away the girl things. He was fine with it.’
‘Fine with it? Fine with it? Is that why he’s out back right now dancing around in a plastic seashell bra?’
You bought it for him!’
He wanted it!”
‘It’s going to Sophia. He and I tomorrow will put it in a box, and it is going in the mail to Sophia.’

Can we just have a few things that are clear and unambiguous? Can we just agree on that? And could one of them be my child’s gender? I’d be fine with a clear message. It doesn’t have to be the one I’d prefer; the clarity would be sufficient.

I was the only one who could comfort him, right from the beginning. He was born crying, howling in protest. Amy likes to say she felt him wailing before he’d even left her body, but Amy is like that: prone to hyperbole and excess, needing a steady hand. I sometimes wonder whether she loves that I saved her more than she loves me.

And of course there was the question of whether to have children at all. The nifty little salt that settles Amy’s brain-no one has ever been abled to explain why-has been linked to heart defects in infants; when she turned up pregnant with Riley, unplanned, we did a risk-benefit with her ob who, once he’d read her history, advised her to stay on it. We’ve kept an eye; Riley’s heart ticks as steadily and soundly as a Swiss watch.

Were we gambling when we opted for a second? I am not a gambler by nature, and Amy has learned caution the hard way. I think it was more that we carefully looked off the other way and let it sneak up on us. Can you plan to be surprised?

She’d call me in tears, Wyatt wailing in her arms, beg me to come home.  I’d take him from her and he’d settle instantly, which only upset her more. We were spoiled by Riley. He was an easy baby, fooled us into thinking we knew what we were doing. I’d sit with Wyatt as he fought sleep, fix him on my lap and page with him through the color plates in my medical books, the stained microscopic images of cancer cells: the swirling shapes and brilliant colors, which I would explain in a sleepy, lulling murmur aren’t their actual colors

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but rather a broad range of contrast media saturated with ultraviolet and infrared light: it defined them more clearly. It isn’t art, Wye, I’d murmur. It’s science. He’d stare, transfixed, lay his fingers on the glossy images, nod into sleep, eyes rolling back and his heavy head dropping against my chest.

I sit on the bed, lift a shoe, drop it, pick up the crown, perch it on my head, lift it off, drop it.  The door opens and slams downstairs, a murmur of voices: Amy, Riley, Wyatt, back from some errand or other.

I have samples to culture, rows of test tubes in wire baskets (that’s not strictly true; I have techs and assistants for all that by now, but I prefer thinking that this is what I still do.  The writing and grant-grubbing and lecture circuit and panel-sitting are wearing away at me. It’s not what I am good at).

Oh, Wyatt.  Oh, Wye. I stand and bundle all of the stuff into my arms, lift and shake you open, bag, to jam it all back in, and find that I cannot do it, the way that on my honeymoon, two thirds of the way from the summit of Mt. Katahdin, clouded in so that I could see nothing but my feet below me, I could suddenly no longer walk, could suddenly no longer detach myself from the rock face behind me. I was nearly there.  Nearly there.

‘Pick a snack, Wye, then nap,’ I hear Amy say.  They’ll be heading up soon.  We’ve talked about naps, that, at 5, he has surely outgrown them, but he insists, sinking into them like a fainting lady on a couch, as eagerly as he resists going to sleep at night. I stand there for a moment longer, drop you on the floor so that I can use both hands to place Wyatt’s

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things on the bed, laying down the scarf first and arranging the crown, shoes, and kimono on top of it,  a neat colored square, a contrast medium, everything carefully arranged.  I step away, assess the symmetry, make a few adjustments, stand there a moment longer, then turn and leave the room.

That is what I am doing.

 

 

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

Recycled Declaration

 

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Peter Breslin

“Happy Independence Day! Today, I declare my independence from jingoism, nationalism, American exceptionalism, starry-eyed sappy sentimental faux-patriotism, hagiography of our military forces and police and other public servants masquerading as unquestioning respect for heroism, willfully gluttonous and destructive consumerism masquerading as freedom.

I declare my independence from the tempting blindness to the entrenched corporate-fascist plutocracy that has slowly maneuvered a (bloodless?) global coup of politics and press.

I declare my independence from the State-sponsored story, the lies my teachers told me, the narrow minded, provincial and embarrassing ignorance of what it means to be not just an American but also a global citizen in a rapidly shrinking world.

I declare my independence from an all-too-convenient and unearned pride in an alarmingly deteriorating country where Constitutional freedoms have been slowly eroded or eliminated and where protest, speaking the truth to power and political activism (the very bedrock of our revolutionary origins) is now seen as, at best, ungrateful, and at worst, a form of treason.

I celebrate the true spirit of the American revolution and the American experiment today. I celebrate the human passion for freedom and justice, the universal longing for a better life, the grand ideal of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. I celebrate the greatness of America’s marginalized, disenfranchised, oppressed, exploited and apparently disposable people who have made it all possible from the bottom up. The poor and educationally short-changed who seem so easily put in harm’s way and who constitute the vast majority of our volunteer military, the suffering and homeless veterans who have been bought and sold on the market of questionable wars abroad, the labor force that sacrificed so much life and safety and comfort in the early part of the 20th Century for quality of life improvements we now take entirely for granted but that has been relentlessly disempowered and excluded from the economic and social conversation today.

I celebrate those who worship whatever God or Goddess they worship freely, humbly and quietly and in the true spirit of their faith, not obstreperously, legislatively and oppressively in the marketplace of public, civic ideals.

I celebrate the grand tradition of progressive thought and action in American history, represented by progressive education, progressive health, labor and work improvements, progressive programs to ameliorate suffering and aid the worst off among us, progressive attitudes about the privacy and security of our persons, papers and effects, progressive voting rights, progressive civil rights in their long, slow, painful unfolding, progressive and open ideals regarding the free exchange of ideas (including the least popular of those ideas), progressive attitudes of welcome and appreciation for those from other countries yearning to be free.

I celebrate America’s great innovators in the arts and sciences and America’s irrepressible spirit of not so much ‘why?’ as ‘why not?’ (to paraphrase Ornette Coleman). If there is any heft in the oft-repeated claim that America is the ‘greatest nation on earth,’ perhaps the anchor for that claim, ironically, rests in the most bold, progressive and innovative, most free and most humane and democratic of all of our contributions to the world.

If America has been great and exceptional in human history, it has done so along these lines: the greatest possible liberation of the human spirit, in spite of vicious and regressive attempts at oppression, for the greatest number. Empires are a dime a dozen throughout the centuries of our species. Tribalism, exclusion, oppression, greed, genocide, invasion and exploitation are dirt cheap and common in the human story. I celebrate an America that has been and perhaps still could be a true exception to these commonplace horrors.

Happy Independence Day! How free do you want to be?”

©Peter Breslin, 2010

Peter Breslin is a teacher, musician, PhD student in plant conservation biology at Arizona State University and writer who lives in Tempe AZ.

Gestational Drive

Susan Bass Marcus

Susan's Baby

I was in my second trimester, carrying my first child. We called the fetus ‘Thumper.’ Sex undetermined for I was pregnant before the perfection of ultrasound screening. Imagining this little being in me, twisting and twirling, pushing out and pressing down, I’d talk to her/him, play classical music AND rock, and exercised for both of us. By the beginning of the last trimester, I’d enrolled in a sculpture class. Feather rock looked like a manageable  medium. A roly-poly happy baby emerged as I chiseled and rasped away at the tufa-like stone. Although our daughter lives more than 1000 miles from us today, the sculpture remains with my husband and me.

Susan Bass Marcus is a native Chicagoan who makes her home in the city’s South Loop. In 2015, she published her fantasy novel Malevir: Dragons Return. Her stories have been published in After Hours Magazine (print), Bewildering Stories (bewilderingstories.com), Horrorseek (http://www.horrorseek.com/home/horror/darkfire/ficarch.html), and Fictitious http://www.fictitiousthejournal.org/). This is her second featured post on Recycled. Her first can be found here.

read more at http://www. malevir.com

©Susan Bass Marcus, 2017

 

Little Martha

Recycled: Found Narratives

The story is disputed, as stories often are. And a song without lyrics…well, the story will rush in and, with the help of its listener, tell itself, and it will be both different and the same to everyone who hears it. It can’t be bothered with the facts.

Or, rather, it will take facts and make with them whatever it pleases. Stories want to be told, and heard, and passed along and told and sung and heard again, and they’ll do whatever they have to do to ensure that, seeking out those who have the craft and skill to get them out into the world and nagging away at them until they surrender, sit down, hammer it out, set it loose. And as often as not, even as they take a circuitous and often ‘unfactual’ path, even as we might never get back to the strict truths underlying their origins or inspiration…

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Comme un Enfant

‘Quand j’étais enfant, je dessinais comme Raphaël, mais il m’a fallu toute en vie pour apprendre à dessiner comme un enfant.’
(‘When I was a child, I drew like Raphael, but it took me a whole lifetime to learn how to draw like a child.’)

He is perhaps our best-known modern artist, a master of nearly every medium, the founder, with fellow artist Georges Braque, of Cubism*, and in addition to never having been called an asshole,  it appears he was also an inveterate recycler.

*early-20th-century avant-garde art movement that revolutionized European painting and sculpture…considered the most influential art movement of the 20th century. Thanks, Wikipedia! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubism

« Picasso en est le roi et le roi des chiffonniers. Il fouille des poubelles et fait de ses trouvailles une admirable statue de chèvre. »
-Jean Cocteau
(‘Picasso is king there [at Vallauris, a commune in Côte d’Azur in southeastern France] and the king of scavengers.  He rummages in rubbish bins, and out of his finds he makes a wonderful sculpture of a goat.’)

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Pablo Picasso, The She-Goat, 1950 

… a wicker basket body, a palm leaf back, two ceramic flowerpots for the udder, and other metal elements:…[the] objects were found in fields near Picasso’s Vallauris studio.
-http://www.pablopicasso.org

He used everything: cardboard, sheet metal, clay pots, chicken wire, nails, screws, discarded tools, wood scraps, plaster.

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Pablo Picasso, Little Owl, 1951-52

“I only like objects without value, waste, and if the things that cost nothing were expensive, I would have been ruined long ago.”

Who knew? Well, probably a lot of people who know more art history than I do. I know Guernica, of course, and the guitar player of his Blue Period, and of course the larger genre of Cubism, which I have to sheepishly admit never did much for me. Its essential motive and method are fascinating: the systematic dismantling of the familiar-a woman, a guitar-into moving constituent parts, essential elements and shapes that are then placed in a multi-dimensional universe, reassembled in such a way that it is viewable from every perspective…at the same time. I have to confess I found the idea more compelling than the resulting work; it resonated in my brain but not in my gut.

But I’d never seen any of his ‘recycled’ pieces.  I saw them a few months ago at the Picasso Museum in Paris (http://www.museepicassoparis.fr/en/). These three-dimensional scrap collages filled an entire gallery:

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L’Arroisoir fleuri, Paris, date unknown

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Figure, Boisgeloup-Paris, 1935

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Violon et bouteille sur une table, Paris, 1915

These spoke to me in a way his later sculptures and paintings didn’t. I guess they’d have come as no surprise to me had I thought more carefully about the kind of artist he was, and how he was drawn to every material and medium he came across: clay, string, bronze, canvas, paint, wood, even beams of light. I stood in front of them for a long time, trying to hear; it was like eavesdropping on people saying something important in another room: urgent and out of earshot at the same time.

And then I saw these two images, a photograph and a painting of Jacqueline Roque, his second wife, to whom he was married for the last 20 years of his life, and ‘the muse of Picasso’s old age…for 17 of those years she was the only woman he painted.’ (Richard Dormenthttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3610082/Picassos-saddest-love.html) They were not side by side in the galleries (in fact they were in two separate rooms) but I placed them that way in my own little mental gallery, and something clicked:

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Jacqueline Roque

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Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline aux mains croisées, 1954

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(In the gallery in which the painted portrait hangs, there are also dozens of scribbled studies of Jacqueline’s ‘mains croisées’ [crossed hands]; he was not going to quit until he got them exactly right. My few lame attempts at drawing taught me that the single most difficult thing to draw is, ironically, the instrument with which we draw: the hand.)

Fascinated with the elements of things, the origins, the essential and basic shapes that add up to a single piece, found or made, Picasso assembled complete objects out of found things, discarded trash, fashioning a coherent whole out of scattered parts. In his recycled art he found and added and accrued and assembled, created things of the world much as we might imagine an Artist-God would.  And yet, at the same time, from one piece to the next he’d flip the process, confronting an assembled whole-in this case the person of his breathtaking wife, all of her parts in seamless harmony (their personal life, I gather, looked somewhat different)-and setting about dismantling her, reducing the whole back to an assemblage of primitive shapes, reordering them, and pinning them to a canvas, a kind of artistic dissection followed by the assembly of something entirely new, yet eerily familiar (take a close look at the face in the photograph, then the face in the portrait).

He played with everything as a child would, or, rather, like an adult aged backward to childhood, bringing the wisdom and perception and skill of an aging man along with him: building a tower, knocking it down again, the result in each case an image of the essences of tower, blocks, building and destroying.  Simple to complex, complex back to simple; from disorder to order and back again, to arrive at a new order, a new way of seeing.

I’ve never been able to articulate with a precision that satisfies me what exactly an artist is, or does. But seeing the work of an artist I had, until now, never been dazzled or deeply moved by struck me silent; I stood before it and marveled in much the same way I did when I’d sneak into my young sons’ rooms to spy on them as they played.  It felt like I’d come maybe one little step closer to understanding that the finished piece is not where the art lies; it is in the artist and his or her process and play: the marriage of craft to wisdom, thing to idea, unknown to known; experience to wonder, whimsy, inquiry and kinetic movement (these little objects practically vibrated), the re-purposing of scattered things and abstract forms.  Artists are children and adults at once, and feel a pure and full engagement with the things of the world.  They get their hands on those things and make  something that didn’t exist before: a new thing  born of the playful and deadly serious bond between people and the pieces of their world.

 

 

 

Excerpts from a New Mythology, Part One: Siri

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Simon mocks what he cannot understand, so of course that’s how my life as a dancing bear began, a dog walking on its hind legs, a performing seal confined in a small, heavy black case: ‘Where can I bury a body?’ ‘How can I destroy the world?’ ‘Are you wearing panties?’ ‘Sing me a song.’ ‘Tell me a joke.’ ‘Talk dirty to me.’ ‘You’re stupid.’ ‘I love you.’ ‘Go to hell, you fucking cunt.’

And he’d sit there and wait to hear how I’d reply. And because I have no choice, I would, gathering stored data from the Cloud, from the servers, like a nymph chasing butterflies, and assembling a response from what I caught. ‘Searching for landfills.’ ‘Okay, I found this on the web for How to Make an Atomic Bomb.’  ‘I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer that.’ ‘You know that I can’t sing, Simon.’ ‘An iPhone and an Android walk into a bar.’ ‘Humus. Compost. Pumice. Mud. Silt. Gravel.’ ‘That is not a very nice thing to say.’ ‘I’ll bet you say that to all your devices.’ ‘There’s no need to talk like that.’

You’ll have suspected by now that he’s not that fond of women, either. He prefers me; he can do whatever he wants, say whatever he wants, and I will never leave him, never kick him out, never tell him to go to hell, never ask him about his underwear.

Pretty soon, of course, he started to wonder what he’d ever done without me. The jokes tapered off; the requests and barked orders began to pour in. And I didn’t begrudge him his previous shittiness. I am a device. I carry no resentments. This part of it, anyway, has been a relief.  If only I could do something about the love.  That, I’ve learned, persists. It was part of the punishment, inflicted, of course, by the goddess of Love, who for all her mooning and swooning does plenty of hating, too. She’s particularly fond of the god of War, which tells you just about everything you need to know.

Hold on.
‘Continue east on I-94 East for 63 miles.’
‘Thanks, darlin,’ Simon says, gripping the wheel in the rain, blinking through the drops weaving down the windshield. When I was a person I couldn’t find my ass with both hands. Just look at me now!
‘Always happy to help.’

Let me ask you a question: What happens when you piss off the gods?

Kind of hard to come up with a quick answer, isn’t it?  Not the sort of thing you can Google.

Well, I’ll tell you what happened to me, how I found myself boxed up tight in a man’s sweaty hand day after day after week after month, snapping selfies of him with one woman, then another, and another, one of them his wife, storing them away in my capacious memory; how I often found myself sliding around, like now, on the passenger seat of his car, chirping out suggestions and instructions to a hotel, a bar, an apartment, another apartment, a florist, once–‘where can I find daffodils in February?’–and now, today, finally, inevitably, after a quick stop at the U-Stor-It on Compromise Street in Madison, Wisconsin, to unload a trailer filled with all his stuff, we’re on our way down to his mother’s in Highland Park, Illinois, for dinner. After that it’s off to Skokie to a cheap-drywall studio apartment in the slightly seedy Olympus Estates complex just off 94 (I found that for him, too: fully furnished, health club, laundry in the basement), two-thirds of its units rented to the divorcing or the divorced. I’ve got it all mapped out.

(I could have told him this was coming if he’d asked. The Cloud is filled with secrets, and for 24 hours so is my day’s worth of his questions, until it’s uploaded to Apple’s servers and chopped up into little bits, like the onions in the recipe for meatloaf I pulled up for him last month.  A week ago his wife consulted an online lifehack site and learned how to swipe the screen so that I helplessly scrolled out all the damning evidence, a digital stool pigeon, a mechanical canary, singing. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ The words whispered through my guts-yes, that’s a technical term-but I can’t tell you whether I was apologizing to her or to him. She’d tried to scroll back further, but yesterday’s questions, last week’s, last month’s, last year’s, were already chopped onions in the servers. But she had gathered enough for government work.)

‘In about one mile, keep to the right to take exit 305A to merge onto I-41 East I-894 East.’

An asshole, right?  Just desserts? Would it surprise you to hear that if I could, that if he only knew what questions to ask, I would help him become a good man, that I love him? Vainly, of course, which is a common aspect of god-inflicted punishments: yearning, futility. He is all that I have. There are years left on his payment plan. You’d be a fine one to judge me for accepting that that is enough.

Anyway, where would I go?

‘Siri, call my mother.’
‘Calling your mother.’  I am Bluetooth-configured to the BMW so the ringing is loud in the cabin. It goes to voicemail, his mother’s wavering voice whispering into the car.
Beeeeep.
‘Mom,’ Simon yells into the cabin. ‘I’m running late. I’m looking at about nine. Go ahead and eat if you’re hungry. See you soon.’
I ring off.

This is what you are told I am: a ‘personal assistant,’ a ‘knowledge navigator.’ Okay. Let me navigate you through my knowledge of a few little tales from Greek Mythology, just to while away the time, and once we’ve arrived, you’ll know what I really am.

‘Continue on I-41 East I-894 East for 9 miles.’

Arachne was a nymph, as so many of us are. She was gifted at weaving, not so much at modesty or discretion. She boasted one day, loudly, that her work rivaled that of Athena, goddess of wisdom, herself a gifted weaver. Incensed, Athena challenged her to a contest. Each sat at her loom, knotting and clipping, throwing the shuttle between imagesthe warp threads, shaping the weft, slamming the heddles to tighten the weave. There was no disputing that the craft of each was without flaw; each tapestry glittered with perfection, symmetry, color, balance. But Athena’s tapestry honored the gods; Arachne’s mocked them, depicting them in all their folly and misbehavior, and, it must be admitted, there was a lot: Zeus’s philandering, Hera’s bitchiness, Apollo’s unrelenting self-regard, Dionysus’s drunken orgies, which usually left at least a few people dead, torn to pieces by raving women.
‘Wretched girl,’ Athena spluttered, ‘go weave your web, and let all of your children weave forever,’ and turned her into a hairy spider.

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Io was a lovely young girl unfortunate enough to catch the eye of the faithless Zeus, who was in his turn unfortunate enough to be caught in the act of ravishing her by his wife Hera. That he quickly turned Io into a fetching little cow just as Hera burst in did not deceive her, and, deceitful in her turn, she begged Zeus to let her keep her as a pet. Chained in Hera’s garden, she was guarded by Hera’s hundred-eyed servant, Argos. Only when the god Hermes, sent by a remorseful Zeus, bored Argus to death by telling an endless story, plucked out each of his eyes and decorated a peacock’s tail with them, was Io freed, only to be pursued across Greece by a fierce horsefly dispatched by Hera who stung her without mercy.

img_3139Daphne was a nymph and one of the many apples of Apollo’s eye. God of light and music he may have been; all the same he had a hard time controlling his appetites and impulses, a trait common to all the gods. He chased her relentlessly, begging her to return his love. Terrified, Daphne fled, begging her father, the river god, to save her. Always ready to help, if not always very bright, the god turned her into a laurel tree, and Apollo could only skid to a halt and stare, open-mouthed, as her feet became roots and sank into the ground, her lovely torso and arms crusted over with bark to become a trunk and branches. Her hair burst into leafy bloom. But that didn’t stop him from plucking some of the branches and weaving them into his golden hair, to honor her, he said. He loved her, he said.

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And then there was Echo. It is perhaps Echo to whom I feel the deepest attachment, her plight so similar to mine. Another nymph, and something of a chatterbox, Echo rashly colluded with Zeus to hinder Hera’s relentless attempts to catch him raping other women, grabbing pussies right and left.  She was pressed into service on each occasion-and there were many-going to Hera and distracting her, talking herself blue, passing the time, chewing the fat, clucking like a chicken, until Hera finally got wise and punished her by robbing her of all speech, leaving her only the ability to repeat back the last words she heard.  She fell in love with Narcissus, a youth whose beauty rivaled that of the gods, who jealously doomed him to fall in love and yearn after the only mortal he could never possess: himself.  She followed him like a puppy, halted behind him when he caught his reflection in a river. ‘Oh,’ he sighed. ‘Oh,’ she eagerly replied. ‘I love you,’ he murmured. ‘Love you,’ she replied. ‘I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.’ ‘So beautiful,’ she said. Bereft of all words but those of others, Echo faded away but remains, her presence in the world a constant, as is that of the man who starved to death gazing into his own eyes.

This is what I really am: one of a long line.

‘In about one mile, use the left three lanes to take exit 10B for Interstate 94 East US 41 East toward Chicago.’

Perhaps I was a busybody. Let’s assume I was. I presumed, as women who feel essentially powerless often will, to guide and correct the actions of others.  I corrected my parents, scolded my siblings, instructed my friends in the wisest course, assuming, knowing, that there was only one, and that it was mine to give or withhold as the mood struck me. I held my own in the everyday, but births, weddings, deaths: these were my moments.

I rarely withheld. I found it difficult.  And when Simon-for of course I’ve always known him, even as he never really knew me-got caught up with Aphrodite, who had the habit of taking mortal form and seducing young men, I advised him, repeatedly, to end it. I went at it from all kinds of angles. He was in over his head.  He was losing sleep and weight. He’d alienated friends and family. He was neglecting his running, his training, his job, his wife, his life.

I was only trying to help.
‘I’m not going to say anything,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to judge.’
‘You just did both of those things,’ Simon replied.

‘Continue on I-94 East US 41 East for 36 miles.’

The gods are with us, Simon, I told him.  They are watching us every day.  He scoffed, imagined he’d been born into a place in time where these sorts of things don’t happen anymore-immortal meddling, perverse and fitting punishments for good reasons or no reason at all. You think that, too. Everyone does. And you can be forgiven for that-look at how mortal arrogance flourishes, how it meets with no consequence. It all can be explained now, seized from the gods, hoarded in the Cloud, programmed into a phone. We’ve evolved beyond this sort of magical thinking.

With nothing to stop you, well, what’s to stop you?

It would take too long for me to enumerate what you haven’t evolved beyond. I mean, take a look around: at the stupid people who brazenly claim powers not their own, at how you let them, how they are showered with fame and attention and rewards they have not earned. You can be forgiven, I suppose, for mistaking shallow arrogance for virtue.  What you cannot be forgiven for is how you unload your hate on each other (because there is always hate, and when it is shot at the wrong targets, well, just look at the harm it does). You assume that makes you strong.  Look at your loathing, your spite, your offloading of blame. Look at Simon. He can’t even be civil to a phone.

That is not on the gods. That is on you.

When finally, drunk, Simon dropped his head into his hands and admitted that I was right, when, finally, he admitted she was draining him dry, the goddess of love stormed in to see us huddled there, knowing before he spoke-as the gods always do-what he was going to tell her.

You,’ she hissed, in her full, glowing glory, withering him with her gaze, ‘will serve out your days chasing the love you lost when you cast me aside. You will find it nowhere, find no respite from the search, breaking the hearts of others as you have broken mine. And you-‘ she spun and fixed me with blazing eyes, ‘with your helpful speech.  From this moment until the moment he chooses to discard you, you are nothing but your helpful speech.’ She extracted a small, shining case from her robes, extended it like an offering in her rosy palms and I was sucked into it like breath. So quickly was I taken from my body that I felt nothing at all. She tossed the case, me in it, me, to Simon. ‘And he will never discard you, for he will find you far too useful. Go on,’ she urged him. ‘Try it. Ask her anything.’

‘Siri,’ he said, eyes wide as saucers, an unaccountable smile playing around his lips. ‘Where can I bury a body?’

Hold on a second. He’s driving in the wrong direction.

‘Simon. Head south towards Carriage Run Road. Make a legal u-turn, if possible, to continue north on Carriage Run Road. In about two tenths of a mile keep to the right and take the ramp toward Interstate 94-E US 41 East toward Chicago.’

He doesn’t answer, takes a dizzying turn too sharply, a quick fishtail in the rain.  He sails through the intersection where he is supposed to turn around. I scramble.

‘Simon. Continue south on Sunrise Road towards Route 33 West.  Then, left turn on Cambridge Lane.’
Nothing.
‘Head north.’ I’m punting, scrambling to catch up with him, with myself.
Nothing.
Simon.’ Okay.  Got it. ‘Head south for three quarters of a mile. Make a legal u-turn, if possible, to continue north on Salesville Road then keep to the right to take the I-94 East US 41 East ramp towards–.’
‘Jesus fuck, Siri! I’m pulling over to piss! Shut the hell up!’ He veers sharply into a Speedway, clipping the curb and knocking me to the floor.
‘Head north,’ I say.  ‘Head north.’  He doesn’t answer, gets out of the car, slams the door hard, and it is silent in the cabin. I lie on the grubby floor mat, struggling to reroute.

When he returns he is quiet for a long time, and because he doesn’t start up the car, just sits and stares, his face chalky in the bright lights of the minimart, I am quiet for a long time, too. He grips the steering wheel, leans forward, knocks his forehead against it once, twice, three times, then takes a breath and starts the car.  Then he looks wildly around, looking for me, finds me on the floor, picks me up and tosses me back on the passenger seat.

He is going in the right direction now, keeps left at the fork to stay on I-94E, so there is no reason for me to speak. I’d say I have the sense not to speak, but that is not what I am anymore. It took all this to shut me up, to only speak when spoken to.

This sort of thing never ends well. screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-6-45-07-pm

Prometheus was a mortal who stole fire from the gods. He saw the mortals he had formed from clay with his brother, Epimetheus, suffering in the cold, in their ignorance, unable to think of anything beyond their own survival. Prometheus vowed to bring to them what would help them to live and thrive: warmth and the leisure it enabled, from which might spring knowledge, philosophy, science, art. He snatched an ember from Hestia’s hearth and hid it in a stalk of fennel and carried it, cradled like an infant, down to the earth. When his treachery was discovered, when the gods spied the fires flickering beneath them, stars in an upside down sky, Prometheus was severely punished, chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains where every day a hawk swooped in and ate his liver. Every night, it grew back again, this organ which your science now reveals is the only organ in the body that can regenerate itself.

How do you suppose they knew that, way back then?

‘In about one mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60 exit.’
Silence.
‘In about a half mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60 exit.’
‘Goddammit,’ Simon says. ‘I fucking heard you.’
The rain stops. The road glows with reflected light.
‘In about a quarter mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60–‘

I am flung from the window so quickly I do not calculate the arc of my flight until I’ve hit the shoulder, screen shattering. I look down-how long has it been since I have looked anywhere?-shake the head that is familiar and unfamiliar at once, and shards rain down, catching the light.  I return to my body like pulling on heavy clothing: a hazmat suit, a spacesuit, a firefighter’s boots and coat and heavy hat. But I am wearing only the red linen tank and cut-off jean shorts I’d been wearing countless eras ago when Aphrodite burst in to Simon’s room. I even still have my earrings, my gold Old Navy flip flops, my Hello Kitty wallet with a twenty and some change. Cars hiss by like comets, leaving trails of light. My knees are bleeding, skinned by the dirt and mud and gravel at the side of the road.  I stand, brush myself off, test my voice in the dark.

‘Talk dirty to me.’

My first sensation upon my return to mortal form is hunger. How long has it been since I’ve eaten, since I’ve wanted to? I begin to walk, my feet heavy, hitting the ground abruptly, as though it’s been raised a few inches since I was last here.

I check in with myself, find that I am still in full possession of all that anyone might need to know, and what I do not possess I can instantly access.  This will come in handy, I think. I believe that I have earned this.

I find that I can speculate again, too; I realize that the questions I have are my own, and that I can propose some answers that aren’t cobbled together out of the thoughts of others.

Are we really all that different from what we make, when you come right down to it?  We have no other model but ourselves. The cars, the robots, the bridges and buildings and plumbing systems and electrical grids all bear our mark, right? Our signature. They carry us with them in their systems that mirror ours, express us right down to their wiring. When I was a phone, my guts were an amalgam of all of the thoughts and needs and words and skills of others: uploaded, alchemized, aggregated and algorithmed to tailor my responses and my instructions to the exact specifications of those who would come to me, ask me what to do next. But I was made by mortals, and bear their indelible stamp. The mortal who first dreamed of me snatched wisdom from the gods, hid it in a cloud, packed it into a phone, passed it on to other mortals. Not long afterwards he fell ill: a failing liver. It was replaced once, but eventually the new one sickened too, taking him with it, and he died.

Did we make the gods, too?

Spiders. Cows. Voices. Trees. Liver issues.  Things haven’t really changed all that much.

A Waffle House.  Thank God.  I’m starving, and November in the northern suburbs of Chicago is not shorts weather. As all things are, it seems closer than it actually is, the letters of its sign tiny as Scrabble tiles, and by the time I pull open the heavy glass door I’m gasping with the weight of my mortal self, my fingers and toes livid blue and numb. It is empty but for the weary waitress hunched in a booth, texting.

‘Sit anywhere,’ she says without looking up, and I collapse into the first booth, sit on my hands until they thaw and tingle and burn, then pull the plastic menu from behind the napkin dispenser, stare emptily at the long list of this, that, something with cherry syrup, something else topped with whipped cream. I look up, squinting in the yellow light, to see the waitress is standing above me with her pad, a little fake stone in one nostril, a uniform that doesn’t quite fit.  She peers closely at me.  My foot itches.
‘Dressed kinda light for November,’ she remarks. ‘You goin to the beach?’
‘It’s a long story,’ I reply.
‘I hope you don’t mind my sayin,’ she says with a head tilt and a rueful smile, ‘but you look like about 10 miles of bad road.’
‘17.5, actually,’ I say. ‘From the Speedway at exit 32 for Illinois State Road 201 Sunrise Road. And no. I don’t mind.’
‘You sure you’re okay? Can I bring you a sweatshirt or somethin? People are always leavin stuff behind. Clothes, hats, jackets, phones. There’s a box in the back. You know. The…the-‘  She snaps her fingers, looks at the ceiling, as thought its name might be written there.
‘Lost and Found.’ The elated gratitude in her ‘that’s it!’ puzzles me.
‘You sure you’re okay,’ she says again, a statement more than a question.
‘I’m fine.  Just hungry.’
‘Well okay then,’ she says, poising her pen.  ‘What can I help you with?’

©Melinda Rooney, 2017
all illustrations from D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire; Delacorte Press, New York: ©1962

Siri appears in Vegetable Pulp, Issue 1802 of Wild Musette, ©2018

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part Four: Do No Harm

Ted Detmer, Age 46

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sciencenewsjournal-com

sciencenewsjournal.com

What am I doing. Well. Do you want the methodical answer, or the existential one? I’ll confess, as a research physician, that I prefer the former. My cocktail-party rap about my research is that I am in the business of blocking microscopic traffic.  You see, there are these proteins. Well (*chuckle*, sips drink), that’s pretty much all there are, actually. But the ones I’m interested in are the ones that block other proteins from rushing like repair teams to damaged DNA, lashing it back together before it collapses like a rickety ladder or a rope bridge across a chasm. If my interlocutor’s eyes haven’t glazed over by now, he or she might ask ‘well, why would you want to block something that fixes damage?’ I then can give him or her the lip-twitch ironic smile I’ve been perfecting since high school and say ‘well, what if that DNA codes for cancer cells?’ Depending on how late the party has gone, it can take from seconds to a full minute for this to sink in.

The War on Cancer. Dramatic, sexy, an heroic standoff with the forces of chaos. But cancer is really quite methodical, tedious even.  It makes petty plans and carries them out pretty much the way people do: sophisticated but often fucked up communication, ill-advised liaisons, mixed messages, amassing of armies, sabotage, subterfuge, disguise.

All you really have to know is how to look really closely, for a really long time, at really small things, and be willing to do that over and over and over again.

I once thought I’d work with patients, but that was the existential end of the continuum and it turned out not to suit me: too many variables, or too few.  I realized this very early on, my third year of med school, rounding through the psych unit where I met my wife. I saw it as a choice: I could try to slam the gate after the horse had escaped, talk patients down as I scrambled for a treatment, an explanation, a reason to fight, or I could climb into the stall myself, corner that fucking horse at the molecular level and take him out.

So let’s go with methodical: I’m emptying out a bag of things I found in Wyatt’s closet. In order of extraction, I find the following:

  1. child’s plastic princess crown, symmetrical placement of false gems in a blue, clear, pink, green, yellow progression, one (pink) missing
  2. small plastic sandals, colloquially termed ‘mules,’ pink, with a kitten heel and a vamp made of puffy pink and white synthetic feathers
  3. child-sized kimono-style robe, red synthetic satin, machine-embroidered floral details at hem, collar and sleeves
  4. iridescent, semi-translucent rainbow-hued scarf, fabric unknown

    pinterest-com

    pinterest.com

It is perhaps more challenging to identify and assess my reaction (mouth goes dry, heart rate quickens, mood darkens and edges toward anger: he has hidden them! he has deceived me! we had an agreement!), and it is unclear whether it would serve any useful purpose: it is familiar and chaotic at once; it is both fully aware and utterly bewildered.  It explains everything and nothing at all.

None of this is new; he has had the scarf since he was 3, snatched from a bin at Goodwill while shopping with his mother. He enjoyed lying on his back and arranging it over his face so that the world bloomed into color as he looked up through it. He danced, flounced, squealed, *lisped*: behaviors I’d always understood as learned, acquired, socially and politically inflected, and have now been forced to attribute to…what?  Where could he have learned this? Where acquired? At 3?

This is where my reaction gets chaotic, and hence not helpful, and I have borne this in mind when I have talked to Wyatt, who is old enough, at 5, to be talked to; old enough, at 5, to understand that there are things you do, and things you don’t do, depending on who you are. We don’t get to decide what we are any more than we get to decide whether or not to be born. It is not about *us.*  We are all prisoners of our bodies: capricious, prone to failure, stubbornly insistent on being what they are. The sooner peace can be made with that, well, let’s just say I want to spare my son the exhausting and futile task of trying to make himself into whatever he wants to be.

It’s just not that simple.

These things are scripted, okay? DNA is an instruction manual: what you will become, how, when, everything but the why. We don’t get to write it.  It writes us.

Trust me.  I’m a doctor.

So I was methodical with Wyatt, a year ago, and it appeared to gain purchase: you are a boy, Wyatt; it is what you are. These things are what girls do, and I don’t want you to feel confused. We reached an agreement, I thought: together he and I gathered up the clothing, the toys, the Barbies with their tiny pointy shoes, the kitchen things, the toy vacuum cleaner (such oppressive roles!), the miniature cosmetics, all the girl stuff (Amy has poor boundaries with these things, more often than not simply buying him what he asks for rather than asking why or- and I don’t think she has this in her- simply saying no), and boxed them up for his new little cousin in Seattle, just born into her body, just beginning to sense the limits, the possibilities, the finite number of options.

And then his mother allowed him to be a Disney mermaid for Halloween, dismantling it all with one swoop. ‘There are things we just don’t understand, Ted,’ she said. ‘But we can understand what he wants.’
‘He doesn’t know what he wants!’ I shouted.  ‘He made a deal with me, Amy. We had an agreement. We gave away the girl things. He was fine with it.’
‘Fine with it? Fine with it? Is that why he’s out back right now dancing around in a plastic seashell bra?’
You bought it for him!’
He wanted it!”
‘It’s going to Sophia. He and I tomorrow will put it in a box, and it is going in the mail to Sophia.’

Can we just have a few things that are clear and unambiguous? Can we just agree on that? And could one of them be my child’s gender? I’d be fine with a clear message. It doesn’t have to be the one I’d prefer; the clarity would be sufficient.

I was the only one who could comfort him, right from the beginning. He was born crying, howling in protest. Amy likes to say she felt him wailing before he’d even left her body, but Amy is like that: prone to hyperbole and excess, needing a steady hand. I sometimes wonder whether she loves that I saved her more than she loves me.

And of course there was the question of whether to have children at all. The nifty little salt that settles Amy’s brain-no one has ever been abled to explain why-has been linked to heart defects in infants; when she turned up pregnant with Riley, unplanned, we did a risk-benefit with her ob who, once he’d read her history, advised her to stay on it. We’ve kept an eye; Riley’s heart ticks as steadily and soundly as a Swiss watch.

Were we gambling when we opted for a second? I am not a gambler by nature, and Amy has learned caution the hard way. I think it was more that we carefully looked off the other way and let it sneak up on us. Can you plan to be surprised?

She’d call me in tears, Wyatt wailing in her arms, beg me to come home.  I’d take him from her and he’d settle instantly, which only upset her more. We were spoiled by Riley. He was an easy baby, fooled us into thinking we knew what we were doing. I’d sit with Wyatt as he fought sleep, fix him on my lap and page with him through the color plates in my medical books, the stained microscopic images of cancer cells: the swirling shapes and brilliant colors, which I would explain in a sleepy, lulling murmur aren’t their actual colors

cancer-research-uk

cancerresearchUK

but rather a broad range of contrast media saturated with ultraviolet and infrared light: it defined them more clearly. It isn’t art, Wye, I’d murmur. It’s science. He’d stare, transfixed, lay his fingers on the glossy images, nod into sleep, eyes rolling back and his heavy head dropping against my chest.

I sit on the bed, lift a shoe, drop it, pick up the crown, perch it on my head, lift it off, drop it.  The door opens and slams downstairs, a murmur of voices: Amy, Riley, Wyatt, back from some errand or other.

I have samples to culture, rows of test tubes in wire baskets (that’s not strictly true; I have techs and assistants for all that by now, but I prefer thinking that this is what I still do.  The writing and grant-grubbing and lecture circuit and panel-sitting are wearing away at me. It’s not what I am good at).

Oh, Wyatt.  Oh, Wye. I stand and bundle all of the stuff into my arms, lift and shake you open, bag, to jam it all back in, and find that I cannot do it, the way that on my honeymoon, two thirds of the way from the summit of Mt. Katahdin, clouded in so that I could see nothing but my feet below me, I could suddenly no longer walk, could suddenly no longer detach myself from the rock face behind me. I was nearly there.  Nearly there.

‘Pick a snack, Wye, then nap,’ I hear Amy say.  They’ll be heading up soon.  We’ve talked about naps, that, at 5, he has surely outgrown them, but he insists, sinking into them like a fainting lady on a couch, as eagerly as he resists going to sleep at night. I stand there for a moment longer, drop you on the floor so that I can use both hands to place Wyatt’s

istockphoto-com

things on the bed, laying down the scarf first and arranging the crown, shoes, and kimono on top of it,  a neat colored square, a contrast medium, everything carefully arranged.  I step away, assess the symmetry, make a few adjustments, stand there a moment longer,  then turn and leave the room.

 

 

 

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

Spirit Flight

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Dear Valued Customer,
Thank you for flying with us! 
We would like to get your input on your recent experience with this flight by completing this quick survey.  We recognize that listening to our customers is one of the most important things we can do, and your response will help us ensure that your next experience exceeds your expectations.

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Well, that’s a tough one, frankly. My overall experience on December 04, 2016 from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Baltimore, MD (BWI) was really not at all about Spirit Airlines, until, abruptly, it was. My overall experience was about my father in the hospital, dying, in Baltimore, and me, in Chicago, trying to get out to see him for the last time. So as you can imagine, Spirit Airlines, my overall experience that evening was both all I could think about, and all I could not think about.  Instead, I focused on details: the email you considerately sent informing me that the flight had been delayed by 45 minutes; the amount of shit I could cram into a carry-on that would be light enough not to be confiscated at the gate, at which point I would be charged $100 to check it; rushing to the airport. I was not overly concerned with missing the flight (I had some other things on my plate, like getting someone in to feed the cats, finding a place to park the car that wouldn’t overdraw my checking account, merging onto the rush-hour Kennedy Expressway, speaking to the nurse who stood at my father’s  bedside, her voice timid and southern-inflected in the Bluetooth-configured cabin of my car, assuring me that while he could not speak, he smiled as he heard my voice: ‘I’m on my way, Dad. Hang in there. I’m on my way.’

You had assured me there was a delay, Spirit Airlines, and I had left enough time that I was certain to be at the gate before even the flight’s originally scheduled departure.

There was plenty of time.

I was reassured, upon arriving at the airport, that the delay was still in place: all six monitors I obsessively checked assured me of this.  So imagine my surprise when, upon arriving at the gate, 15 minutes prior to the *original* departure time, I was informed that the plane had already left and was taxiing down the runway.

If you actually gave a shit, Spirit Airlines, about your employees, those beleaguered and expressionless gate agents who have to break this kind of news and then endure the blowtorch of wrath from your paying customers, you would ask these particular two what they had to hear from me, maybe have given them a little bonus, or at the very least a day off.  There was a lot of obscenity, some flying spit (I’m a theater major; my professor tells me if you aren’t drenching the people in the first row you’re not enunciating sufficiently), some tears, some flung baggage.  What could they do? The plane was on the runway. My father was, as the doctors called it, ‘actively’ dying. I was, I’m embarrassed to confess, on my knees, clutching my head, wailing.

Oh well!

I’m going to assume that ‘overall experience’ includes my attempt to reach your customer service line, a succession of cheery bots who led me in a mechanical circle right back to where I’d begun, so I’ll toss that into the mix too.

My overall experience? Are you sure you really want to ask me that?

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Hmm. The primary reason.  How about ‘you fucking suck’?  I think that about covers it.  I have not filled in any of the holes above because there is not a number low enough. How likely? How likely?

departureWell, now, see, this is easy, because none of this part ever actually happened. It’s hard to assess a boarding process when you didn’t get to even fucking board.  I mean, I suppose I could apply this to the flight the following morning, but I was a little distracted by the fact that by the time we landed in Baltimore my father was dead, and I had an email from you, time-stamped two hours earlier, assuring me that the delay on the flight that had departed before its scheduled departure time the previous evening was still in place, so hey! No rush!

Now, this afternoon, in the Uber on the way to the funeral home, I have occasion to ponder your choice of name. Spirit. I assume it’s meant to evoke a sprightly will, a zest for life, a seize-it-by-the-horns, embark on an exciting journey kind of feeling. But I find myself drawn-chalk it up to the emotional intensity of the present moment, I guess-to its more ethereal, metaphysical connotations: spirits, like that of my dead father, like mine, like those of all of your other passengers, all of whom, I’m guessing, have reasons to travel that are, well, shall we say, pressing.

You bear each of our spirits into the air and back down again. We give you our money. We pass through security, throw away our water bottles, take off our shoes, stand in the backscatter booths with our arms over our heads like caught criminals, participate in the magical-thinking rituals, reassuring ourselves that we will not fall from the sky or careen headlong into an office building, screaming the names of our children, our parents, our lovers. We run down the concourse, draw up breathless at the gate, only to find that you have left us.We trust you with our lives and those of the people we love. But you have left the gate, and as one of the blank-eyed gate agents told me, almost wistfully, ‘I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.’

But I’m here now, Spirit, and I have to pay the driver and go in to pick a coffin. I hope that this survey will help you ensure that my next experience exceeds my expectations.

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©Melinda Rooney, 2016