Dead Ends in Writing
Wayward Girls: Part One (October, 1990)
The first time I saw Allison she was stuck in a tree like a cat. The first time I saw Allison she was seated at a desk wearing an astronaut's helmet and talking on the phone. The first time I saw Allison was at the bottom of the sea.
The first time I saw Allison was at a party thrown by Misha the pimp. He was tiny and charming, a Russian pimp who spoke English, Swedish, Czech, and German. One night I remember Misha saying that America was a big, fat ass, and he just wanted to spank it. I can see myself riding that ass all night long, he said, just fucking it all night long. He spanked the fat air and gyrated his narrow hips and then stopped and smiled. And we would both wear cowboy hats, me and America. He was my kind of pimp.
Misha had a huge apartment in Malá Strana furnished with a single, king-size mattress which lay, unadorned, on a gleaming hardwood floor. There was also one small television, and usually several long-legged teen models from the crumbling Soviet bloc. There were no chairs, no couches, no tables -- end, coffee or otherwise. There was no refrigerator. What little food entered the apartment was eaten right away or, in odd instances, stored on the ledge outside the window where it was an even proposition that it would tumble down to the sidewalk below, leaving the entryway a rat's pantry of chewed sausages and molding bread. During his parties, which were frequent and popular, he would spread out blankets in the corners of the rooms, each supplied with a small handful of joints and an ashtray.
And there was Allison. She was leaning against the wall just inside the brightly lit dining room, her gleaming, white face buoyant atop the long, liquid shadow receding down the dark corridor behind her. She seemed ethereal and evanescent. She seemed to be fading, not into the background, but away from the tangible world in which the rest of us, with our pinching clothes and rectal itches, were forever anchored. She was beautiful.
I approached her at the picnic blanket that had been laid in the center of the living room. I told her I was impressed with her language skills, a compliment she shrugged off. I told her a friend of Misha's from Stockholm had told me how Misha had to leave the city in a rush after he smashed a fish bowl over his landlord's head. She had heard the same story. I told her that I really liked hippos because they weren't quite as big as elephants, but always bigger than you expect them to be. She nodded. I told her, after a pause, as her feet began to shuffle, that I could be charming when I needed to be. She looked at me and smirked and said you need to be. I scratched at my ear and thought. In that case I take it back, I said. She thought that was charming.
We left the party with a pocketful of loose cigarettes and navigated the dark and twisting streets through a lazy approximation of the twisting river running beside us. We crossed over the black water, deaf to the baroque arguments of faith and martyrdom made by the statues that lined the old bridge. We gawked at the ancient figures unaware that they were all replicas; all the originals tucked away now in a climate-controlled museum. We spoke at first about the old stones and spires, about the many shortcomings of our native land. She kept her fingers busy fiddling with her earring, afraid, I supposed, that I might snatch her hand.
She was telling me the story of the Golem, a clay man brought to life somewhere here on these crooked streets we were walking, when a tiny metal plink came up from the street. Oh, shit, she said sweetly, my earring fell off. So we crouched in the dark street, looking for the earring in the cracks between the cobblestones. I remember looking over at her nearly black silhouette. She sat lightly on her heel, and rested her elbow on her raised knee. Her long hair fell forward as she bent her neck down toward the street. With one hand she brushed the hair behind her ear, and with the other she patted blindly at the stones. And then I saw a glint in the dirt. My hero, she exclaimed, as I handed her the earring. I watched her, young and amazed, as she slipped in her earring in the dark without one false movement. How do you do that? I asked without embarrassment. Proprioception, she answered. Everybody has it. We let our shoulders bump as we started walking through the narrow streets. Allison leaned against me, and we walked for a while holding hands.
By the end of the night I learned that as a girl she loved Jules Verne and dreamt of becoming a scientist with a cellar lab filled with fossils and bubbling beakers. I learned that one day at the local ice-skating rink she wanted to rent white, tasseled figure skates, but all they had available in her size was a pair of black hockey skates with the silver signature of Bobby Orr emblazoned on the ankles. I learned that she credited her large feet for getting her into the Ivy League. The pretty boys called me Sasquatch, so I studied a lot. I learned that her mother had committed suicide when she was just starting high school. Allison opened the door to the bathroom and saw her mother's pale, bloated body. And there at the side of the crimson bath, bobbing between her mother's white toes and the side of the tub, was a single razor blade buoyed by its plastic spine. I can remember the soft ticking sound the razor blade made as it knocked against the porcelain. After she phoned 911, she saw a slip of soggy paper disintegrating in the floating tangle of her mother's hair. She plucked the note out of the cold, red water and smoothed it out on the sink. She assumed it was a suicide note, but it was tattered and dyed pink. She stayed in the bathroom and sat on the toilet with her hands in her lap waiting for the ambulance to arrive. She sat there, she said, in the tiled white room looking at her mother, trying to read the puckered folds in her flesh. By the time the paramedics arrived the note was dry, but nothing legible ever appeared.
The Character Sea (September, 2001)
We sat at the kitchen table writing out our wedding invitations, a nearly empty bottle of champagne warming in a spot of sun that had claimed it by stealth. My hand was cramping and my signature, not very impressive to begin with, had devolved into the sort of markings archaeologists would puzzle at years in the future as they argued with each other over the evidence of early Homo sapiens.
Merely the markings of some befuddled scarab.
No, I tell you. [strokes beard and whispers] There is a pattern in these scratchings.
I told this to Allison, in something very close to those words, but she responded again as she had before, that a personal touch was necessary, so I continued on with my signing. Such was the extent of our domestic squabbles. I made flowery and absurd protestations, and then did it the way Allison wanted. No complaints.
Still, I fell behind her pace, pouring the last bit of warm champagne into my glass, covering a yawn with my pen-hand and noting the position of the sun.
I have a Chinese student now, I told Allison, bright guy, engaging. He studies at UC Seminary School, but he's Buddhist. Allison kept writing with her head down and her hair covering every bit of her face. He told me a story the other day, that on New Year's, Chinese New Year, it's their custom for every family to write their wishes on rice paper and hang the paper like a banner over their front door. But, in his village, a lot of people couldn't write. So, those who had money would pay to have the words written for them. When he was a student he did that for money. The people who had no money would take a beetle and dip it in ink and then set the beetle on the rice paper. He told me he could remember it all clearly. The beetle would be entirely coated in ink when they pulled it out of the pot, and very close to death. It couldn't breathe or see, so it would stumble around on the paper, falling to its side, struggling to get up, stumbling again and eventually dying. Apparently, the people think that the marks it leaves behind look like Chinese writing.
Allison lifted her head, brushed her hair away from her face—so beautiful—and said that there was only a small stack of invitations left. We had already debated the list of invitees, close friends and immediate family, no cousins of uncles, or whatever connections swell a wedding into such an unwieldy gathering, but the stack was still formidable. Allison said that her aunt had told her that there would be people at her wedding that she would never see again. You're young, you don't believe me, but it's true, and you won't know who they are. So, Allison considered that with each invitation she wrote.
I buckled down and worked my way through a few more invitations and then felt like a break. The champagne was done, so I asked Allison if she wanted me to fix us a couple Bloody Marys. Today is Sahib Saptami, I said as I glanced at the calendar from the seminary school. Big party day!
We're almost done, Allison said. Let's just finish.
I sat down at the table, looked dolefully at my empty flute, and told Allison another story. I told her how I asked my Chinese student about the Mandarin dictionary, about how it's organized. I mean in the Roman alphabet words start with an 'A' or a 'B' and that's how you look things up. How do you look something up that looks like a beetle wrote it?
I told Allison again that he was a Buddhist and that he patiently described the Mandarin Phonetic Symbol Index in which characters with the same pronunciation are arranged according to their respective radicals. He then explained how for people that are familiar with the characters of Chinese there was a radical index, more poetically called a character sea, where one looks for the radical which is the root of the word and then finds the character by determining how many strokes would be needed to form a particular word.
Allison let her arm drop below the table, and then raised it again softly to her mouth. The character sea? That's really a very beautiful phrase.
I nodded. I also thought it was a beautiful phrase, all the implications of uncharted murky depths.
I watched a plane streak across the blue sky. We lived right in the flight path to O'Hare and every couple minutes another plane came by. We lived far enough away so that the planes were still at a decent altitude as they passed and we could see them more than hear them, which was nice, but sometimes we heard them too. I thought about all our invitations, boarding planes, and flying around the country.
There was one invitation left, to Allison's mother. She insisted on writing one, even on sending it, though Allison had never before exhibited any tendencies toward magical thinking, nor ever betrayed any faith in a God. She worked on it for longer than the others, but wrote without any signs of distress, no biting her lip, or chewing the ends of her hair, certainly no tears. She finished it and sealed the envelope. I didn't ask what she wrote, and she didn't tell me, and the next day, or perhaps the day after, it was in a plane bound for.
Wayward Girls: Part Two (November, 1990)
The café had soaring ceilings, gleaming white table cloths and plush red carpeting, so of course Allison didn't seem to notice me as I walked toward her, not until I put my hand on her shoulder. She looked up at me and I felt a thrill in my spine as her open eyes opened. We talked about God and politics too. Freedom is good; oppression is bad, the soda-pop politics of American youth. When there was a silence she would fix her hair behind her ear and we'd listen to the plink of saucers and spoons as waiters in jackets brought us coffee and cakes. We stayed there for hours and the rain began falling harder, humming against the windows. The clean, white lights of the café warmed us as the sky outside darkened.
I looked at her warm brown eyes and thought of a dripping sugar spoon while she told me a story filled with hot, dusty roads, and the sound of plump June bugs thwacking against the windshield of her car. The details are hard to remember, I might not have heard them the first time, but there was an old mansion in her story, and broken windows, a gaping door off its hinges but blocked by yellow police tape. There were thick, crumbling envelopes scattered across the floor with dates going back to the 1930s.
I watched her put a single cube of sugar in her spoon and dip it into the coffee and I thought of her eyes. She talked as she held it there, letting it dissolve. The files she had found in the mansion were all from a home for wayward girls, girls that had been sent there for being "incorrigible" or other little-girl crimes of the early twentieth century. She turned over the spoon to let the syrup drip into her cup. She told me she was writing poems about these girls, just a modest resurrection. I can be hopeful, can't I?
Of course, I said. At the time it never occurred to me that you couldn't. So, of course I said of course. She closed her notebook and slid it across the table toward me. I could read the title Wayward Girls written in a hopeful hand. She asked if I would like to read them. I looked at her as she smiled and put the spoon in her mouth. I told her I would love to, but warned her that I didn't really get poetry.
Allison said it was simple: poetry is the art of calling a thing that which it is not, in order to remind us what it really is. A poem about your beloved should be filled with stars and moons, she said, and a poem about the heavens should be filled with human stink.
The waiters padded along the carpeted aisles in polished shoes, carrying silver trays laden with burning candles. Through some Christian magic, coffee had turned into wine, and Allison had slumped back a bit in her chair, her chapped lips stained red. She rested her head against the window and I could see a warm red glow moving toward her nose. The people at the table next to us—two gray-haired men in dark Slavic suits, their pearly wives in old theater dresses—stood and pointed at the dark windows. Allison and I turned and pressed our faces against the window to see through our own reflections. There in the black night was a boat on fire sailing down the black river.
Baby Journal: Part One (February, 2004)
Opening the freezer always made me think of Allison's breasts, at first of their swollen grandeur, and then with a sigh, of their anatomical construction, of glands and lobules, of lactogenic hormones and pituitary secretions. The freezer was filled with vials of breast milk, each marked and dated clearly in blue marker by Allison's clinical hand. The arrangement was so clean and precise, and beautiful too in its simplicity, that it reminded me of a Cornell box. As a practical solution to the problem of older vials accumulating in the back of the freezer, Allison had rigged a sliding U-track. Fresh milk in one side, the next vial for feeding out the other side. Motherhood had turned her into this entirely practical being. Her shoes were comfortable, her clothes were loose and combined in natural colors that evoked a hike through a state forest or some nature preserve. Everything about her was practical, down to her nipples which were now reserved for the practical sustenance of our infant, and not to be accessed for prurient frivolities.
As the axis of our lives tilted inexorably toward the chilly equinox, we confronted the procreative dilemma of now or never. Allison and I discussed school districts and retirement plans, finances and our mortal dread, and went ahead with now. I looked down at Now wriggling beautifully in his bassinet, and then looked outside at the snow piling up on the L platform. I pressed his little nose as the long scratch of shovels came in from the window. Time to bundle up little baby.
The baby smelled mossy and organic, damp like a forest floor, utterly earthbound, as was I, as I changed his diaper and swaddled him in his morning clothes. I sniffed his head and tucked him tight into my arm as I walked barefoot down the hall, following the scent of coffee. When I opened the cabinet to get a mug, there were two glass vials of Allison's milk on the shelf.
It was a day designed for the comforts of television, but I had just taken over the primary role in baby-raising since Allison's maternity leave had ended, and there was still guilt about squandering time. So rather than settle into the escapades of a cartoon octopus, I asked the baby if he wanted to see a real octopus. He gurgled and gacked in a way that seemed approving, so I bundled him up and walked with careful sideways steps down the icy stairs.
I wrangled the buckles and straps and harnessed the baby into his car seat and turned on the engine to warm the car while I brushed the snow from the windows. I could see his big eyes tracking the brush as I scraped away the ice, then closing as dwindling bits of melting islands slid down the window.
He woke up in the dark halls of the aquarium, blinking at the glowing tanks and translucent fish. He was strapped in his harness looking over my shoulder, so as I turned him to the tank I would always be looking away. That's a jellyfish, I would tell him and spin around, now looking at a thin and fashionable couple, artistically tattooed. That's a spider crab. Sea turtle, I said, as we looked at the Caribbean reef tank. Cuttlefish, I said, looking at the school of hovering aliens in front of me. They changed colors as they sunk and rose, pink and purple, blue and green. I turned around so the baby could see, and I could feel his warm breath on my neck. A school group of human children was huddling behind us. I looked at the back of the teacher's head as he told them how the cuttlefish sprayed its ink to escape predators, but that it was also used in cooking and even for writing invisible messages. The children drifted past me toward the tank with their fingers raised. I turned back around to look over their heads at the cuttlefish again. I could hear the teacher saying that some people thought that cuttlefish were the smartest fish in the sea. It took a moment to register that the cuttlefish were all looking in the same direction, looking at us, staring out of the tank with their tentacles dangling around their beaks in thwarted menace.
I wrote it all down in the baby journal afterwards, or at least I intended to, but I couldn't find it. Instead I wrote some Borgesian tale about an aged librarian --an amateur paleo-linguist as well, of course-- who had broken the code of the heretofore inscrutable Minoan Linear B, but insisted on writing his findings with the vanishing ink of a cuttlefish.
History Lesson: Part One (11/11/90)
Allison and I were inside of a plinth, beneath what used to be a fifty-foot statue of Stalin leading the masses. An enormous supine skeleton stretched through the darkness along the dirt floor by the entrance, presumably the old bones of Uncle Joe himself. Bright beams of electric light cut through clouds of swirling dust and flittering plumes of smoke. A band, nearly invisible in a dark corner, filled the space with clangorous metal.
In the darkness and patchy bright lights, I saw Allison along her edges, the crooked bump in her nose that never held any make-up, the disobedient hair around her ear, the shadowy line of her neck disappearing into her shirt. As we passed a spotlight, our shadows grew like monsters across an empty wall, then vanished as we turned away.
Along one stretch of wall a man reeking of aerosol paint was encouraging people to graffiti. Please, he said to us in English, even in the dark making us immediately for Americans, add your name to history. His face glowed with the burning ember of his cigarette as he gestured toward a spot of wall caught by the edge of a spotlight. Names and initials, a few longer sentences, trailed illegibly into the darkness. Allison pointed to where someone had written Never Again, followed by two exclamation marks. We're clearly safe from tyranny now, said Allison. I think it's the second exclamation point that did it.
I added my own history-addled Americanism to the wall, sic semper tyrannis. Allison gave me a sort of bemused smirk and walked through the bright beam of light and wrote something in one of the dark corners, pausing to rattle the can halfway through what she was writing, but when she was done all I could see was the date, 11-11-90. The rest remained covered in gloom. That'll do, she said, and handed the red can back to the man. She sniffed at her red fingers and then held them up to me. Smell?
Sure, and I held her hand to my face and breathed.
We climbed the plinth after we left the club and looked out over the darkly twinkling city. This is where Stalin stood, Allison said, leading the plaster masses into the river. It was a clear November night and Allison was wearing a thin black jacket that was missing a button at the neck. She kept clasping her hand over her throat as we looked down at the lights and spires. I turned Allison toward me and we kissed, Allison's one hand caught between us, still at her own throat. I told her I loved her.
History Lesson: Part Two (September, 2016)
I asked Alision just now, just this morning, actually, while we were both in the bustle of leaving, and Benny was scrambling around looking for his homework, whether she remembered what she had written there, in the corner of the plinth. She stared at me incredulously. I have no idea what you're even talking about. And then she hoisted on her enormous backpack, slung her satchel over her neck, grabbed a thermos of coffee, and went trundling down the stairs. Love you, bye.
Monday Is Little Muchacho Day (May, 1992)
I followed Allison back to the middle of America, to a green and wooded campus built of bricks on gentle slopes where we rented a dark one-room garden apartment, the subterranean gloom un-brightened by euphemisms of real estate. The walls were thin, the ceilings were low, and the pipes were exposed and perspiring. The cheap stucco finish crumbled into the eternally simmering pot of lentils on the stove. I started to call Allison my little mushroom. My little mushroom, I would coo, and kiss her naked shoulders while she read about Nazis. She was doing her PhD on Nazis, or so I would always say, though there was quite a bit more to it. Not now, she would say as she pinched her shoulder to her ear. I would skulk back to the tuberous couch and squint at her dim pile of Nazi books, all swastikas and frowning scholars. The apartment was across the street from the dental school, and from the couch I could look up and see the small, sinister feet of aspiring dentists creeping past my window, little Mengeles each and all.
The churning currents of American commerce had forced us into our little eddies of employment. Allison got a job as a waitress. She said she wanted a job where she didn't have to think, and during a week of formal study, where she learned the various combinations of rice, beans, and flour that comprised the menu, she thought very little. She learned the names and titles of the various managers. She learned the state-mandated temperature for the dishwasher (170 American degrees) and the walk-in freezer (much, much colder). She learned that Monday was known in this small, bean-scented universe as Little Muchacho Day, when children eat for half the price. Upon graduation, Allison was given, in place of a cap and gown, an embroidered shirt and sombrero.
I tried to entice Allison to have sex with me while I was wearing her sombrero, but she never did. I stood in front of her while she read about Nazis, naked with my arms crossed over my chest, penis angled acutely, and sombrero atop my head. El bandido est hornito. No reaction, certainly no sex.
I, on the other hand, looked for work in the field of blue collars while I worked on my doomed application to the school of fine arts. I saw a job advertisement that read Construction: Hard Work, Fair Pay. Something in the laconic austerity of the notice appealed to my current misapprehension of myself, so I bought a new flannel shirt and went there to apply.
It was a small, college town; I didn't expect to be walking on steel beams fifty stories above the city. I figured I'd be working mostly with wood, building houses, maybe schools and churches. Cheek pressed against the freshly planed wood, sawdust in my hair, my days would be filled with hammers and spirit levels and the sound of the wind whisking through the falling leaves. I ended up pouring drywall.
I came home after my first shift to our dark mushroom palace, turned on the light and hung my new hard hat next to Allison's sombrero on the wobbly coat tree. I opened a beer and lay down on the couch next to the stack of books. I picked a fat one off the top of the stack: Jewess: The Fate of Jewish Women in the Holocaust. It did not seem the kind of book that would keep you in suspense until the final pages, but I opened it up anyway to a particularly disturbing picture, and please consider the competition:
It is winter time, back in the black-and-white days, on a black-and-white beach on the Baltic Sea. In the background there are piles of discarded clothes lying at the feet of soldiers with guns and excellent posture. The naked bodies are already beginning to fill the trenches. In the foreground four women and a single, young girl are standing together wearing just their underclothes. They link their bare arms and look directly, maybe defiantly, into the camera. Only the small girl has her head bowed. It is hard to guess her age, maybe seven, maybe eight. She nuzzles the crown of her head into the fleshy part of her mother's arm, and seems to be trying to tuck her nose into her own shoulder. Her little fist is balled and her elbow has a slight hitch as if she were raising her shoulder against the wind, or against anything, as if she had hoped for some small protection in the thin shadow of her flesh against such annihilating exposure. In the margin, someone—it did not look like Allison's writing—had scribbled the single word horrible. I closed the book and closed my eyes, wishing we had a television. My ears were ringing from work. I pointlessly covered them with my hands and noticed that the insides of my ears were lined with gypsum dust.
I was in bed when Allison came home and my eyes had already adjusted to the darkness. I could see her gray figure with some clarity as she leaned one hand against the door jamb and bent her foot up toward the back of her thigh to take off her shoe. It was a small apartment and if I was asleep when Allison came home she wouldn't turn on the lights. She'd put away her books in the dark, get undressed in the dark. She'd navigate the narrow strait between the kitchen table and couch in the dark and then I'd see the faint line of light come from around the bathroom door as she brushed her teeth in the quietest way she could. If she had to pee, she was careful not to flush. It was as if she were preparing for a bombing raid.
After the bathroom she came straight into the bed. I rolled across the creaking mattress, brushed the hair behind her ear and kissed her on the neck. Not now sweetie. I'm feeling a little gassy.
I told her in our dark, still bed, pointlessly whispering the way people in bed do, that I'd been reading about her Nazis and asked if she was the one who had written horrible next to the picture. She said that she had.
When I told her that the handwriting didn't look like her handwriting, she said that she didn't know what her handwriting looked like. I'm writing poems about her, she said, about the little girl in that picture. I go to this café by class where people bitch about baristas breaking their pour or whether their dry cappuccino is too wet, and I imagine children clinging to their mother's naked flesh in dark gas chambers, and on the wall right in front of me there's a poster of this topless woman sitting in what I guess is supposed to be a bath of coffee. And then I write these poems about my little Holocaust girl, these poems of borrowed consequence, as if I could rescue her by writing, or at least give myself some meaning by seeing her. It's a complete absurdity.
I nodded, though I don't suppose she could have seen, and asked her, since we were both still awake, if she wanted to take a shower with me. I got gypsum in my ears.
We met right after work. All gypsum and beans, we carried the residue of our labor to the nearest bar. I ordered us each a beer, and we sat down on teetering stools at the bar, ignoring a dim row of comfortable and vacant booths that stretched along the wall behind us. It's miserable, just miserable, said Allison, as a silky blonde slid up to the bar beside us and ordered two chocotinis.
What was wrong with these fucking people, shooting mothers and their children. And then taking pictures. Sometimes I don't know who was worse, the guy shooting the gun, or the fucking monster who could just watch and take a picture of it, like they were standing in front of Niagara fucking Falls instead of a heap of murdered children. I took a sip of my beer, washing away the lingering taste of dry wall. What happened to these monsters? They don't just go away, you know. They're still here, ordering chalupas and choco-fucking-tinis, waiting for the next war.
I had seen her mottled green journal lying around. She had scratched out the old title and written instead Poems of Borrowed Consequence. I wasn't really sure what the rules were. Was it like a diary, are you not supposed to open it up? In any case, I never did. If it was on the table I was careful and respectful, placing it at the edge, squared to the corner, and rarely using it as a coaster. She told me she had started writing haikus because she could think of them when it was slow at work, and then she recited one to me.
Mom is fifth in line
Naked, holds her naked girl.
Solider lifts his gun
She looked at me with an apologetic smile. I thought for a moment with my mouth full of nuts, and then caught between chewing and spitting, reminded her that I wasn't really good with poetry. Her eyebrows and lips curled and wriggled like a kitten's tail. She didn't seem angry, but maybe just a little hurt. Oh, well, she said, I guess we won't stick that one up on the fridge.
She told me she had been writing earlier, almost earnestly, as she put it, about black-and-white horrors in her comfortable café before her shift at the restaurant. And I come to the end of my notebook today, my 500-page notebook, and there on the last page, the last page of this 500-page notebook of poems I've been writing all year, I read 'Monday is little muchacho day, kids menu half price.' Monday is little muchacho day. And I realized I had been writing backwards, that the title was on the last page. She laughed, so I laughed, and we ordered another round.
Baby Journal: Part Two (February, 2004)
Allison came home just as the baby was finishing his bottle. I could hear the soft, careful shutting of the door, the low knock of her heels coming off on the hardwood floor, and the tip-toe of her stockinged feet as she came down the long creaking hall. I looked down in my lap to show Allison what I was doing and the baby's lips came apart. I pulled away the bottle and his eyes rolled up and closed. What am I supposed to do with these? Allison whispered and pointed at her breasts, at the moist, dark tint around her nipples.
I put the baby down in his bassinet, and when I came back to the living room Allison was sitting on the couch bare-breasted, hooked up to her electric pump, a suction cup sucking at each nipple. It looked like a kitchen appliance, and in fact she kept it in the kitchen on the baker's rack between the toaster and the crock pot.
I looked at the puckering blue sacks under her eyes as she watched the television. She let go of the pump for a moment to grab the remote control and the suction cup tugged down on her breast. I watched the white milk trickle through the long plastic tubes and drip into the glass receptacles resting in the contraption on her lap. If only Vermeer could see you, I said. She turned the channel to the television news. Let's see what's exploding, said Allison. So we watched the news in silence, the usual rows of tanks and shattered markets, crying mothers on their knees lifting their palms to the heavens. During the commercials, so filled with shimmering things, Allison would mute the television and I could hear the sucking of the breast pump.
This was our domestic scene, filled with gear and baby gadgetry, filled with silence and the low nattering TV, all clutter and dissipation. I complained to Allison, during one commercial break, about the dullness of our new neighborhood, our outpost at the edge of the city. There was this crazy woman in the old neighborhood who would take her pants off at the café. I told her that she'd pull down her pants and kind of squirm her naked butt on the vinyl upholstery. They would always chase her out and scrub the seat afterwards, but they always let her come back. There just aren't enough crazy people in this neighborhood.
Allison stared at me. I am staring at you with incredulity, she announced.
When the news came back on, Allison shook her head and changed the channel to a show about pies. I told my students today that history isn't a book, she said as I looked at the strawberry rhubarb in high definition, it's a boot that kicks down your door in the middle of the night.
Allison fell asleep on the couch with the television tuned into some black-and-white movie with a soothing crash of overlapping dialogue. I spread a baby blanket over her naked feet and went to bed alone. I woke up in the middle of the night and saw Allison's black shadow slumped in the chair beside me. I closed my eyes but heard her snuffling above the mechanical gurgle and whirr of the breast pump.
Allison came home looking a bit drawn, or rather, sketched by a jittery and impatient hand. She was all shaky edges and broken lines as she tried to untangle the wires and hoses of the breast pump. Shit, shit, shit! She yelped in a hoarse-throated whisper when one of the empty bottles plinked down on the floor and rolled under the couch. Finally, she assembled herself. She took a breath and unbuttoned her shirt, letting it fall right into her lap. Without looking away from the television she attached the hoses and suction cups to her nipples.
While the machine suckled her, I told her about the aquarium. I told her about letting the baby slap at the guitar strings during tummy time. I told her about a show I had watched on TV, while the baby was sleeping, about the Lewis and Clark expedition, about how they had eaten their dog somewhere in the Bitterroot Mountains. I had nobody else to talk to all day, so I told her about everything. I told her, as the pump began making a dry clicking noise, that I had looked for the baby journal in the office but couldn't find it. Do you know where the baby journal is? The pump coughed and rattled and fell silent. Allison tore the suction cups from her breast and flung one of the bottles across the room. Damn it, damn it, damn it, she whispered as I grabbed a towel and mopped the small puddle from the floor.
I went to the office after Allison fell asleep to look for the baby journal and sighed at the wreckage on Allison's desk. Manila folders were strewn across her desk like the broken bits of a fuselage. Below the folders were several notebooks. This looked promising, but they all had titles like Imagining Hitler, and Writing Genocide. I hoped that these were not the baby journals. I found one notebook called Rape Camp Narratives, which somehow stuck the song "Camptown Races" in my brain, which I whistled as I sifted through the detritus of unsorted pictures until I finally reached the black box, a notebook with the title Baby Journal written in the rollicking font of Comic Sans. It was still wrapped in packing plastic. I stopped whistling and looked for a while for another journal. Maybe she had already filled the first, but this was it. I unwrapped it and checked the empty pages to see if somehow Allison had been writing in it magically. She had not.
Wayward Girls: Part Three (May, 1989)
We drove through the woods of southeastern Ohio and crossed over the river into the rolling hills of West Virginia. Maybe there were June bugs. There were certainly horses in a green, fenced-in field, where we pulled the car to the shoulder so Allison could feed them hay through the white-washed slats. And there was a historical marker alongside the road.
The marker informed us that the crumbling mansion set back from the road belonged to the grandparents of Samuel Clemens. I see the details only vaguely now, but it is not the point whether the long drive was pavement or gravel, whether the police tape that covered the door had already been snapped or whether we ducked in beneath it, whether the door was merely ajar or if it had fallen from its hinges. The point is that we went in and were thrilled to be doing so. The point is that it was abandoned and eerie, and that there were documents strewn over the floor, both blue and white envelopes dating back to the 30s with menacing names like Lakin State Mental Hospital, State Hospital for the Colored Insane, and most memorably The West Virginia Industrial Home for Wayward Colored Girls. The point is that I was there too. We began picking up the packets, which turned out to be case files, and started reading the names:
Annabella Jefferson, Trudy Jackson, Harriet Monroe, all daughters of presidents, one would assume. There was an Allison there too, Allison James.
We went to the basement of the abandoned mansion-turned-abandoned mental hospital where some nearby farmer had been storing feed. There were scattered toys, and small broken chairs. There was a caged room with a hospital bed, its ancient straps dangling from the sides like dead arms. And then we saw it, a large wooden sign, nearly as big as the wall it was resting against, with a picture of a woman driving a car with a sedate and pliant man beside her, his mouth loose as if sleeping, but his eyes wide open. The sign proudly declared the number of successful lobotomies that had been administered at the Lakin State Mental Hospital.
We were excited, and we were nervous too. We were young and in love, charged with transgression and discovery. Anything else I could say would be mere embellishment.
We went back upstairs and began gathering more packets and stuffing them in Allison's purse. In the wood-paneled room next door there was a large, leather-bound ledger resting on a lectern, but we never opened its pages. We watched out the window as a pick-up truck crunched up the long gravel drive. The farmer coming to drop off more feed? We did not bother to wait and find out.
Allison turned to me in the car, because she already knew my pretensions, and said that I had to write something about this. You have to write something about this. They were giving little black girls lobotomies there! And in fact as we read through the case files, there were mysterious mentions of "ice packs" delivered as treatments, the quotation marks theirs, not mine.
You have to, she said, and I nodded solemnly.
You have to.
That was 1989.
Dead Ends in Writing (2007)
After Allison's death, my mother left the swaying palms of south Florida to support me in my slush-black grief. She cooked meals and cleaned the dishes. She washed the clothes and ironed my shirts, apologizing to my twitching back for the clatter of the board and the hiss of the steam. She kept things from crumbling while I immersed myself in the comfort of closed systems, playing chess online deep into the night. Pawn to King four, Knight to King's Bishop three. My mother put her hand on my back, well after midnight, and told me to try to get some sleep. I turned and looked at her, gape-mouthed, like she was a hanging pawn or a piece of furniture, like something that could be moved poorly or well, something that might fit much better behind the sofa.
But I took care of the baby. I took care of little Benny. I fed him, I changed him, I washed him, cradling his little head in the palm of my hand while I rinsed the soap from his body, wrapping him in his swaddling clothes and kissing his ears and the tip of his nose.
My mother kept after me: pay the bills, change the oil, get filters for the heating unit, sort the recycling, assigning more tasks as the weeks went by, little tasks like tiny teeth eating away at the fat body of grief. One day she suggested that I organize the heap of pictures and videos. I sat down cross-legged on the floor next to a shoebox filled with undated cassettes and hooked the video camera up to the television and started by rewinding the most recent tape, the one still in the camera. I watched our baby sleeping backwards in his bassinet. I watched as Allison brought the sated, sleeping infant to her naked breast.
Eventually it was time for the ritualized discarding of old clothes, the consignment of Allison's memory to the wobbly racks of the Salvation Army. My mother took Benny for a stroll to the park and I spent the morning putting her clothes into boxes, actually taking the time to write on each box the appropriate category: sweaters, shoes, laughing a dry, nasally snort at the box I had labeled unmentionables. I could hear, or imagine as I closed the empty drawers of Allison's dresser, the squeak and scratch of cheap hangers being slid down the rack by unhurried shoppers until they stopped at the silky blue flowers of her favorite shirt. I could see the young woman in Allison's black jacket clutching at the missing button at her throat.
Later, after I had stacked all the boxes by the back door and made telephone arrangements for a truck to come by -- after I dumped her valise stuffed with documents from the West Virginia Industrial Home for Wayward Colored Girls into the recycling bin, after my mother and Benny came back from the park -- I went to take a shower. And when I closed the bathroom door, hanging there on a hook, was her favorite purple robe.
Over the river, I would say as we crossed the bridge on the way to Benny's preschool, and I would hear his small voice come from the backseat saying over the river. And each time we crossed he would ask me to tell him about the two alligators they found in the river, and then I would have to tell him about the coyote they caught in a sandwich shop downtown. Tell it again, he would say, and I would tell it again, flipping down the rear-view mirror so I could watch his expressions as I told the story.
Benny loved stories as I guess all children do, and he started to tell stories of his own. He made up two brothers, Jack and Pinch, who lived in Minnesota, a place we had never been, and that I had never mentioned to him, but he picked it up somewhere. One day he decided that Jack and Pinch should move to Africa which, Benny explained, was in a whole different building, and then they moved to Russia after Benny asked me about the huge blue expanse on the world map hanging in the hallway. And, of course, he asked me to tell him stories about his mother. I sold out my dearly held agnosticism in a second the first time he asked me about her, and told him that his mommy was in heaven, a secret green valley filled with kittens and clear streams high above the clouds. I told him she was in heaven watching him all the time, and that at night when he was asleep she would come down and kiss him on the forehead just above his eyebrow, and each time I told him he would reach up and rub the spot. And then one night while he was kneeling on the couch in his dinosaur pajamas, playing cars in the windowsill, he asked me without turning from the window, is Mommy real?
Allison had told me when we first met, that first night walking the streets of Prague, that she wrote poems to rescue herself from abstraction, that she felt alienated from the objects around her, and that writing was the only way she could bring things close to her. She told me that a poem, whatever else it might be, was a real object in this world, something unworn by familiarity. She told me these things while I looked at her breasts, but still I heard and even remembered.
So, I am writing this for Benny. I thought I might tell him about his mother, that I might rescue her from abstraction, but what did I know myself? When I think about her now she seems ethereal and evanescent still, a shimmering and luminous bruise.
Edwin Rozic teaches English to people who already speak English. His work has been published in McSweeney's and Glimmer Train. He lives in Chicago with his wife and son and a menagerie of furry and scaled beasts.