Madeleine is the name she has taken this time

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She does not begin her song at its beginning anymore. 

We are still in love / with our presumed pedigree / of certain ghosts….

She sifts through each proceeding verse, the grain of her voice ascends. She sings of the construct of his skin, the obtrusiveness of bone, the scratch of thorns that precedes the blood. 

She is still considered a young woman, has changed little since I was small enough for her to cradle. Her eyes, perhaps, stare more deeply. Her hands tremble noticeably when she brushes the sand from my arms. The other women in the village seem older, but they are not. They stare, they shade their eyes with small flat hands, their lips tighten with frowns. 

I cannot contain him in my grief / in a temple of duplicitous priests…. 

“Are you her boy?” a woman asked of me. “The singer? The whore? She thinks you are his only favor. You are her bastard, did you know? Go, hide yourself and your shame.”

“I am not him,” I said, and the woman walked away. 

It is like this in every village. I never tell her what they say to me.

We do not stay in any one place for long. There are so many towns and villages along our path that we are not always noticed right away. There is something in her face, I think, that draws their attention. Although she cloaks herself in a widow’s robe, we are always revealed, and it is always with scorn.

The singer. The whore. 

I am unashamed, I tell her.

 I am not him, I said to the woman.

I fall into my mother’s voice when she sings. We do not need to go back to the beginning. In her song, we are both free and we are both our true selves. Of certain ghosts, she used to sing, and I still believe that is who we are.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

 

Lime slippers

limer

I .

You said:

 “So — and just so you know this, just so you recognize what I am telling you — this will mean the end of your crisp hospital corners.”

“Française, please, Marie. Pas d’anglais s’il vous plaît.”

You squeezed your eyes shut. You hated this; I knew this about you. Cela signifiera la fin de vos coins d’hôpital nets!”

And you left. You walked out on him, and you did not show him a tear. You gave those tears to me — raw and lucid — half a mile down the road. 

“I didn’t tell him what we rehearsed, Daniel. I’m sorry. If you want, you can drop me off at the drug store and I will call for a taxi.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because the French word for fuck does not sound quite so declarative to you, and it is the only language I want to use right now.”

“I’m not just dropping you off.”

“Then you can wait for me in the car. I only need a few things. I don’t even have a pair of slippers, and I dislike your stone floors.”

“Then I will knit you a throw rug. An entire series of them.”

“You don’t knit rugs, Daniel, you crochet — never mind. It will only take me five minutes if I don’t swear en français, ten minutes if I do, fifteen if the police are summoned.”

“Marie?” I said, and leaned towards her. “You’re finished with him. Terminé. No police, please. We go home, to our home, to our floors, and I will kiss you just a little.”

“You are not French, Daniel. You do not know how to kiss me just a little. I am too distracting for your petits English kisses, ma chérie.”

“Then let us scorch your fresh hospital corners,” I said, “and I will kiss you into eventuality.” You laughed more tears than you cried, and I discovered a new thing: you were mostly unafraid to run with me, and I was mostly afraid I could not keep up with you.

II.

Seven dollars and sixteen cents for a pair of lime-colored slippers. Molded cotton with thin rubber soles. You bought me a six-pack of Löwenbräu and a ballpoint pen. I’m still not sure why. You brought with you a plain cloth shopping bag filled with toiletries and magazines and chocolate, as if this were a vacation, or an escape.

 “The years,” you said. “The years that I made their bed, cooked their meals. The years, Daniel.”

“Years that are behind you now,” I said. “Those slippers, though. They will last forever.”

“Are they not beautiful? They were in a discount bin beside the cassette tapes. I almost bought you a Dan Fogelberg album… he reminds me of you. There were mauve slippers, and orange, and strawberry red, but this was the only pair in this particular shade.” 

‘They look radioactive.”

Oui. I should be able to find them in the dark.”

“You should be able to find them from outer space.”

Oui. Is that wrong?”

“No, not wrong. In fact, very apt. Very you.”

Oui. Very me. Are you jealous I did not buy you a pair? As I said, these were the only ones in this color.”

“You got the slippers, I got the pen. And the beer. Very me.”

“Yes, and I am very tired now, Daniel. Do you mind? I am ready for those small kisses of yours, but, I regret, not much more. Are you sad now?”

“Sad? Yes, a little,” I said. “But it’s a long drive, and you need to sleep.”

“Ah, yes. And the world sends its regrets.” And she turned from me. 

The city was behind us and it was a bronze Rodin sculpture, a monument to this idolatry I felt. What remained of the moon was scattered, masking absinthe rows of stunted trees. Where we landed was so far from the place I thought was promised us. Of course I was sad. 

III.

You said:

“I think you will be a very good artist, Daniel,” but it was in French: Je pense que tu seras un très bon artiste, Daniel.

Your voice was sleepy and shadowy. “Yes? I will be?”

“Of course you are already good. But great, is what I mean.”

We will be great,” I said. “You will be there to see to that, right? By my side?”

Oui. I will see it.” 

“Did you sleep? You were very quiet.”

“No. No sleep. This is a longer drive at night. It bears a weight, does it not?”

“It feels like it. It’s late, almost 1:30. We’ll be there soon.”

“How soon?”

“Half an hour, forty-five minutes. Traffic’s light, so not too long.” I stroked her cheek and she closed her eyes. “This would have been an expensive taxi ride.”

“Yes. I am sorry. He made me so angry, I could not think. ‘Française, please. Pas d’anglais s’il vous plaît.’ Like I was a child.”

“You were kind to leave it at that,” I said. “You two are like sticks of dynamite when you’re together, each one holding up a match, daring the other to strike.”

“He is a bastard.”

“He is your father.”

“That does not change his bastardness.”

“I suppose not. Let it go for now,  Marie. It is still a fresh wound. Give it time to heal.”

“Yes. To heal. Can we stop somewhere for coffee? I feel a migraine gathering between my eyes.”

“We’re not too far from home, honey.”

“Please? I won’t be able to sleep anyway. I am still tightened up.”

Wound up.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re too wound up. That’s the expression.”

Pardon, can we somewhere for a fucking coffee so I can will not be so wound up?”

“Yes. You are tightened up, my mistake. Next exit, I promise.”

“I am so sorry, Daniel.” 

C’est la vie. It’s been a long night.”

Oui. It has. We are arguing like bastards.”

IV.

I said:

“Two creams, two sugars, is that correct?”

“Yes, my love. And I am so sorry. Beaucoup d’excuses.”

“No worries,” I said. “Anything else?”

No. Yes! Perhaps beignets, if they have them? I am suddenly hungry.”

“I’ll ask, you bet. Or any reasonable substitute.” 

Oui. Any reasonable substitute.”

It was two o’clock in the morning, but the restaurant — Mister Warren’s Southside — was busy, with a lot of truckers and shift workers filling up on coffee and early/late breakfasts. Who ‘Mister Warren’ was, I had no idea. The room was filled with the usual aromas of a good diner: freshly brewed coffee, greasy eggs, toast, bacon, good cigarettes. I almost went back to the car to ask you if you wanted a sit-down breakfast, but then I remembered your oncoming migraine. So I stood in line and waited. There were three large men and a laughing tattooed woman ahead of me. I thought you might fall asleep, and so was in no hurry. I thought of ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper, and smiled. If I could be that good….

When it was my turn to order, I asked for two large coffees, and half-a-dozen Boston creams. I think they were freshly made. I stuffed extra napkins in my pocket. I almost started to whistle, walking out the door, but I think I knew.

The car, of course, was gone. I retraced my steps, trying to convince myself I parked one row over, or not as close to the parking lot lights. I refused to notice the plain cloth shopping bag left in place of the car. I thought you were playing a game with me because I corrected your English. How many times did I correct your English? So I stood there. And I stood there longer, and I waited. I knew but refused to believe. You were gone. Inside that plain cloth shopping bag was your / my pair of lime green slippers. No note. No explanation. 

I found a ride home, eventually. I arrived at seven-thirty that morning. My car was there, parked in the driveway, and you were still gone. There was no note. I decided not to wait for you. I went inside and placed the plain cloth shopping bag on the kitchen table.

I cried more tears than I laughed, and I discovered a new thing: you were mostly afraid to run with me, and I was mostly afraid you would not keep up with me.

I went to bed and I slept on the back of several broken hours. When I woke up, I showered and shaved. 

Then I discovered a new thing about me: I would move on. And I decided I would cancel my French lesson on Monday.

I took them for three more weeks, and then signed on for the advanced class.

sub.stance

I remember when dust was more beautiful than substance, something uncatchable, something whisked into cat corners. This was home. This was being a child. 

There is a box of in-season lettuce on the sidewalk beside the glass doors of Karl’s Barber Shop. Ladybugs — many — are sitting on the cardboard folds. Do they sit or stand? I’ve always wondered. The box is set crooked against the chipped brick wall, and it has been filled many times before: for lettuce, now, perhaps for apples, once, or old dishes, frail, muffled by newspapers and crimped grandmother-pillows. 

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This, being a child:

My father stands at the door, and he exhales hues of cigarette smoke, blue and gray and an ivory plume in the shape of a Saturday morning. The smoke smells important and impatient, the scent of everything I know of him: his roughness, his capriciousness. He is still a young man, and he has created everything.

It is numbness more than ecstasy that will lift you, I would tell my five-year-old self.

“Morning, Johnny. Brought your boy with you today, huh?”

“He’s getting a little long behind the ears. Say hi, bubs.”

I say, “Hi.”

“Well, hey, little man. You turning into a hippy? That hair is looking wild.”

“No, sir. Daddy say I jus’ need a trim.”

“Just a trim, yessir. Hop on over here, son, let’s see what I can see. Look at you, grown two inches since last time. What you feeding him, John? Magic beans?”

“Spinach!” I shout.

“That right? Never could stand the stuff, but it must work for you. Same as usual, John?”

“Yeah,” says my father, who is already seated. “No. Cut it a little shorter. There’s talk of layoffs at the plant this fall. Might not see another haircut ‘til Christmastime. Go ahead and bean him.”

“Damn, Johnny. Hope things turn out okay.”

“Probably not. Goddamn Nixon. Just do the boy today, Karl. I’m driving cab tonight, and I don’t care how I look.”

“That so?”

“Part-time, cigarette and gas money, mostly.” He picks up a copy of Field and Stream. There is a picture of a trout on the cover. He showed it to me last time we were here. “This is a trout,” he said. “About half as long as you are, Joseph. Those colors above his belly tell me he is of the rainbow variety.”

“Really, Daddy?”

“You calling me a liar, son?”

“No, sir. Never saw a fish that big before, that’s all.”

“They get bigger,” he says, and shrugs. That was my father’s primary form of communication: the sharp grunt of the shrug, the shut-up-if-you-think-you-have-more-to-say shorthand that is so easily misunderstood. It can be difficult to translate when you’re five years old. When you’re fifty-five, even.

“Wasn’t expecting you ‘til next Saturday,” says Mister Karl. “Wasn’t this your old lady’s turn to look after him?”

“Bitch changed her plans,” Daddy says. “She knew I had things to do this weekend. Goddamn car payment, goddamn kid payment. She won’t be happy ‘til she sees me go bust.”

“Uh, John?”

“Now I’m stuck with you-know-who all weekend. Might be able to land a babysitter, I dunno, I doubt it. It’s already too late to call my usual sitter.”

“Johnny? Big ears here, son.”

Daddy looks over and sees Karl pointing at me. I can see him in the big mirror. I pretend not to notice, but my face feels red.

“Aw, hell,” Daddy finally says. “Joseph gets to ride in the front of the cab with me tonight, ain’t that right, bubs?”

I try to be cheerful. “Yes, sir. And we’re gonna have hotdogs for supper, Mister Karl. And watermelon!”

“And watermelon? Holy smoke, kid, you got a good Saturday planned, dontcha? Wish I were going with you, instead of cutting hair all day. And you get to spend time with your old man. You’re one lucky kid, you know that?”

“Yes, sir. And Mister Karl?”

“Yeah, Joe?”

“Why is there a box of lettuce out in front of your shop? You know there’s a bunch of ladybugs all over the box? Won’t they eat the lettuce?”

Mister Karl smiles. “Yeah, kid, I hope so.” And then to my father: “You know old Pierce over at the hardware store? His wife put up a garden again this summer — the whole backyard this time — and he can’t give stuff away fast enough. Some mornings, it’ll be green beans, next day it’s onions. Today, it’s lettuce. A whole box of it, as you can see. What do I want with that much lettuce? A few pounds of potatoes, sure, but lettuce? Do I look like a rabbit? If you want a head or five, grab some on your way home. Otherwise, let the bugs have it. At least it don’t stink, like those turnips did. Hey, you remember that, Johnny? A goddamn milk crate full of ‘em. I told Pierce, son, next time bring me some of your old lady’s brisket, not her turnips. Does he ever get tired of ignoring me? Not yet, he don’t.”

I listen to the cadence of Mister Karl’s voice, but not to most of his words. I  think he is a nice man, but he seems to be honestly confused by someone who has done a nice thing for him. Free vegetables? Free lettuce? Daddy calls lettuce a ruination of a good sandwich. I guess so. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem important enough to worry about it, or become angry over. Let the bugs have it, I guess. 

Mister Karl trims me very short. There is a big pile of hair beside the barber chair. I didn’t know there was so much of me to take. Daddy did not look at me the whole time, or at anything else, not even the old magazines. He nodded during Mister Karl’s speech about vegetables, but I don’t think he was even listening. Mister Karl dusts off my neck and shoulders with his little barber brush, and then helps me down. Daddy does not notice my haircut is finished.

“See you next week, Johnny? You’re getting a little long behind the ears, too, fella.”

“Yeah, maybe. We’ll see. Take it easy, Karl. Hell of a night tonight, I guess. Wish me luck.”

Mr. Karl hands me a penny for the gumball machine. “Good luck, son,” he says, and then he winks. This time, I get an orange gumball, one of the big ones.

Daddy takes one last look at the box of wilting lettuce outside and nudges it with the toe of his boot so that it’s flush to the wall. He lights up a cigarette and walks on ahead of me. I try to keep up, but fall further and further behind. 

This is being a child. This was being dust. This is being dust.

 

Detected in a moment of profound silence

It might as well be written in paraffin, she said,
the way this will all burn between us

Uncle Nathan would not regret choosing the white athletic socks
as an accoutrement to his burial suit,
nor his choice of “Love in Vain”
at his memorial service

and there he is, with a lavish depiction of goldfish
scales on his bow tie,
Yves Saint Laurent tidal-gray shirt and a fleur-de-lis
stitched
on the breast pocket of his forty-year-old wedding jacket

the nieces will be outraged and
the nephews, not so much
did he have any money
who was he, anyway?

might as well be buried
between two Valencia orange crates
as between these two half-grieving ex-wives
who study the pink in each other’s blouse:

Dee, the round, idiosyncratic blonde, fifteen years
younger than he / a subscriber to three
plant-based leggings franchises

and

Dorian, the angular other blonde, twenty-seven, smarter
than everyone else in the room, who still cannot measure
the time it took for him to dissolve their
prenup

he kept folded photocopies of his parents’
obituaries in his wallet and they have turned brown
and unimportantly crisp — like well-preserved October
leaves, or Ore-Ida tater tots

and

he kept his necessary papers — driver’s license,
blood donor card, theater
tickets — in his left shoe / told his grandchildren
he was wounded in some war / hence the perpetual
limp

and now

a flourish of ghosts gather
at the dais

today we say goodbye to
a fine man…

Aunt Marlene, a flask of high-octane bourbon
in the confounding folds of her dress / takes
a petite swallow / she’ll be damned
if she shares it with the impotent man pretending
to be her husband two seats down
from that shaggy empirical redhead
he tries to impress with the cut of his
motorcycle boots

in the sixty-seventh and final mortal year of our dear
Uncle Nathan

and then

there is that sacred moment between

‘can you give me’

and the conspicuous dirty silence,
when all the introspective heartbeats and
the slightly humid exclamations
stop

and

the sweat dangles from the lip
the tear struggles to define itself and fall
in a meaningful display of public mourning

and

the voice becomes
a bellicose yowl of unashamed grief

and

eternity is, all at once, undressed / then clothed
between the dry heaves of bored deprivation /pity,

and then

the sky pulls back its pretty laced veil
to reveal its demanding blistered face

‘an amen for brother Nathan?’

and amen

and

the nieces / nephews
stare at each other on their cellphones confused
and then make their plans
for when this
boring shit is over