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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Guild of Two

The Glove Maker

Weeks of crossing the Atlantic in steerage and long lines at Ellis Island had all but exhausted Isaac, but he could not afford the luxury of rest, not now, when he had to open a business and feed his family.
He sat at his workbench, patiently showing Micah, his eldest, how to stretch butter-soft kid leather over a glove-maker’s sample so that the fingers were snug while the palm remained loose.
“The woman should be able to close and open her hand, so the glove must have some give to it, you see?” he asked, using the same words, the same hand motions, that his own father had used years before, when Isaac himself was a boy apprentice.
Memory carried him back to their shtetl, a sheltered and pleasant Russian hamlet where Bezoar goat kids grazed all summer, only to be slaughtered for their leather in autumn.
Isaac could smell the tang of newly tanned hides, could hear the songs his father had sung while stitching the elegant gloves that were sold to rich ladies of the Czar’s court.
Fondly, he regarded Micah who now was trying to please him by doing well, and Isaac wondered whether his own father had gazed at him in the same way, and his father, and his father before him.

The Music Teacher

This pale child next to me has the true gift, the rare gift that the learned old men at the august State Conservatory speak about in hushed tones. She places her hands on the strings with the confidence of a seasoned concert performer, and the music she makes is exquisite.
But there is something wrong with her spirit that I can’t name, as if playing well is her revenge, and not her calling.

My other students watch me play, their eyes never leaving my hands, careful to learn the fingering and the bow technique I use.
This one, though, she watches as if she is waiting to catch me in a mistake.

Sometimes at night I see her in my dreams, a malevolent grey form dragging a violin and whispering, “Now who is the teacher and who is the pupil?”

The Cave Dweller

Back in the year 2341, two Earthlings and three Martian Adepts unlocked the genetic code for passing down knowledge from one generation to the next while the fetus was in utero. This forever eliminated the cumbersome human act of teaching.

There had been fierce debates, of course, about how much knowledge to upload to the fetal brain via gene manipulation. Should new Passengers be required to know obsolete skills like farming, tool-making, book binding or harp-playing – relics of a bygone world?
The “Past is Prologue” school of thought said yes, whereas “The Future is Now” school said no.

The Martians valued the role of elders in training younglings for Galactic Passage, but Earth people outvoted them in favor of using Droids.

And so it came to pass that the words “teacher,” “apprentice,” and “guide,” left the Galactic Vocabulary forever -- except, my darling, for right here, in this crystal cave, where I tutor you in the secret art of touching others with words.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Without a Trace

Christine and her brood came down from the mountains in fall, exchanging their high plains meadow cabin for a flat in town with a view of a warehouse wall.
Has to be done, she told Roy at the hardware store, because ya can’t risk getting snowed in all the way up there, eh, even with chains on the winter tires. The kids were happier, anyway, she smiled, not having to ride the morning school bus down the pass when it’s still dark as pitch.
She bought insulating gaskets for her storm windows and then, impulsively, added a wall clock that sounded cheerful bird calls on the hour.
While Roy watched Chris cross the street, her back straight and her stride long, he couldn’t help wondering why her husband had disappeared, those years back.
No one wanted to believe ill of Chris, who was, after all, salt of the earth, but the man did just vanish right after one of her kids was rushed to the hospital with broken ribs.
Christine was adjusting to life in town again, and she knew what should and should not be done. She should join the book club. That way lay companionship and conversation, which were vital.She should not go into bars alone. The men looked at her and thought, there's a woman who's been up in the mountains without a man.She must be hungry.
"Stupid men," Christine thought, "who don't know the difference between hungry and lonely."
Christine needed to get back up the mountain one last time before the snows came, to load up the horses and bring them down to town. She’d arranged to board them over winter for, if she left them behind at the cabin, they’d go off who knows where in search of food and shelter.
She chose a school day to go, expecting to be back before the kids came home, and she packed a lunch and some apples for the mares before hitching the trailer to her Ford-250.
As she drove, she thought back to the times when Charlie and she had been happy, or happy enough, and the cabin beside the high plains meadow had resounded with music and lively conversation.
There, she had seen her first elk calf, her first golden eagle, Mackenzie Valley wolf, and first starry night undimmed by light pollution.
There, too, she had first tasted the back of a hand in anger, the sting of a horsewhip, bone-deep fear and, finally, an unthinkable act of self defense.
After greeting her mares with apples and kind words, Christine sifted through her house to be sure she’d taken everything valuable or private. A deserted mountain cabin in winter was a favorite destination of trappers and romantic teenagers, she well knew.
In her second desk drawer, she found a hospital bill, long since paid, for Zack’s emergency room visit four years earlier. The memory of that night rose up like hot acid, and she saw the small broken body and imploring eyes of her son as his father threw him against walls and furniture, again and again.
Stuffing the piece of paper in her pocket, Christine stumbled out of the cabin and herded the horses into the trailer while a bitter, sick feeling overwhelmed her. How much longer until time, or present events, erased that nightmare vision from her past?
A light breeze stirred the aspens, and from somewhere nearby came the call of an olive-sided flycatcher. Christine remembered teaching Zack and Lolly, then five and four, to recognize the quirky cheeping: quick three beers, quick THREE beers.
They had walked the meadow many times with Charlie on those days before his bouts of rage nearly took their lives. But all too soon, the children had learned to fear him as well as they had learned the names of the meadow flowers and grasses.
Christine sat for a few minutes in a patch of fragrant sage, calming herself before she had to get behind the wheel. She knew one thing for certain: Charlie’s “disappearance” had simply been a coward’s flight from the law, born out of fear of arrest, and she would never tell it otherwise.

Christine had grown up in a farm family that placed no romantic filters over reality, a family that imparted an unblinking view of survival priorities.
“Women and children firssst,” she hissed, steering the pickup and trailer slowly through hairpins, down the mountain pass. To her left, coolly assessing the scent of the two trailered mares, were four coyotes plump with a summer's worth of rabbits, and more.
“Good dogs, very good dogs,” murmured Christine as they shrank in her rearview mirror. “They clean their plates and chew the bones like mother’s little helpers.”
Down to town she drove, thinking ahead to autumn jackets for Zack and Lolly, thinking ahead to the time, not so very far off, when she’d file the official papers and be free of a man who’d just disappeared one night without a trace.
Zack and Lolly were old enough to remember the night their father went away, but not old enough to sort out the confused events of that night.
In a foggy sort of way, Zack recalled his mother taking him from the cabin in soft blankets, Lolly crying between them on the ride to town. He recalled that she had left him in the hospital that night and gone home.
When she came back the next morning, she’d said, “Papa is so very sad and sorry that he hurt you. He agreed to go far away and never come back, so that he won’t ever hurt me or you or anyone again.”
Lolly remembered that night differently, but all she had were disassembled images of her Papa lunging and yelling, of her Mama endlessly chopping something in the yard and then throwing the pieces far down the hill while the moon traded places with the racing clouds.

The Education of Lila

The Wakassa Pass ran by Lila’s cabin and sloped upward to a high plains meadow where rudbekia and plumbago grew wild. Their gold and blue mirrored the summer sky. Not many travelled that pass anymore, not since the government had paved a new road through the hills. But occasionally, photographers laden with gear hiked the pass to set up their cameras. They sold pictures of the meadow to the Sunday rotogravure sections of big city newspapers. People in cities liked to look at pictures of hawks making lazy-eights and sulphur-colored butterflies drinking nectar from red salvias.
The year was 1943, and the world beyond Lila’s horizon was at war. She rode her mare, a placid quarter horse, to town once a week to get provisions and hear the war news. She’d heard talk of a victory over the Japanese at a place called Midway, though neither Lila nor her kinfolk had heard of the place before. Neither had they heard the names “Solomon Islands” or “Guadalcanal.”
A photographer passing through had taken Lila’s picture in front of the cabin, and he had mailed her a copy along with a world map, as thanks. He wrote, “Your smile made the sale,” and Lila wondered how much the magazine, named “LIFE,” in capital letters, had paid him. She smoothed the map’s creases carefully and pinned it to the kitchen wall. When the radio announced a terrible event at Bataan in the Philippines, she located that far-off place and circled it. She learned the names of cities and rivers in Europe and Burma where the blood of American boys had spilled. One Saturday while she was at a store in town, the radio said that 600 soldiers and airmen from North Carolina had died overseas since the war had started. In town, people prayed for the safe return of “our boys.”
The cabin had passed down to Lila from her mother’s side of the family. Her Uncle Thomas and Aunt Rebecca had built the place and tilled a garden, using dug-up field stones to form the walls of the spring house which doubled as a root cellar. Lila grew vegetables in a neat plot by her kitchen door. She shot the rabbits that came to eat her garden, baking them into pot pies with the English peas and carrots they’d come to steal.
In July, two photographers -- a man and a woman – stopped at Lila’s door. They asked for water, and she brought them a jar from the spring house. The man smoked in the shade of a hickory tree while the woman took photographs of Lila on her mare and showed her a newspaper depicting the surrender of a short, dark-eyed man they described as the dictator of Italy. Lila proudly showed them her map of the world, and while they examined the circles and lines she had drawn, she had them spell out the name M-u-s-s-o-l-i-n-i. The couple, it turned out, had taken that picture and now were back in the United States, recording what they called Appalachia. They seemed surprised that life anywhere could be so “untouched” by the war raging around the globe. Lila told them that President Roosevelt had sent more than 600 telegrams to widows in North Carolina since the war had started.
When they left, Lila circled the western corner of North Carolina and wrote in the margin of the map: In Appalachia, 600 dead are not untouched.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


1. The hotel room was elegant. He arrived after her, shedding coat, tie and shoes. She directed him to a sofa covered in a fussy chintz, and when he was seated, she straddled his lap. There, looking into his eyes, she fed him blueberry pie and vanilla ice cream. She fed each forkful carefully and slowly, and he ate with his eyes closed. He savored the warm, juicy pie morsels and cold ice cream as if each were a kiss, although he knew it was all the dessert she’d ever give him.

2. They sat beside each other until dusk, enjoying the quiet unlit room. They talked about the 40 years that had passed since they’d last seen each other, just children, really. He had brought photos of his son and daughter who were older than they had been when first love immersed them. He was elated when he could make her laugh, a fabulous laugh, the kind you would recognize in a crowded theater or café despite all other sounds. She could see the boy in the man’s face, and she longed to run her fingers over his features, but did not. Being in the same room after all these years was miracle enough.

3. On the train home, he sat in his usual reserved car with his usual evening paper. He smiled to himself as he replayed a devious joke she’d told him about a debate between a rabbi and a pope. He closed his eyes and tasted faint vanilla. He would write to her next week, or the week after. There was no rush. She was as much a part of him as his bones, and he was in her marrow.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Conversation With a Ghost

This must never get out in the press, for it would cause widespread panic. The priests would surround my house, not to mention the police and possibly the army. Castor Desayuno has come back from the dead! Yes, the butcher himself!
You are saying to yourself right now, or possibly to your beloved who sits beside you in the morning sun with her hair down and a cup of café con leche in her sleepy grasp, Castor Desayuno cannot possibly be walking the earth. You must think I am mad!
You are protesting, ‘But we saw his head on the end of a bayonet, paraded through the streets of San Cristobal. We saw his body lowered, headless, into a grave over which no priest said the holy words.’
But as surely as I stand before you at this moment, I saw Castor in the flesh, last night. He was a hungry ghost, desperate for conversation. He beckoned to me to sit beside him on the steps to the Shrine of the Eternal Madonna, the very one where he was cut down in the middle of fornicating with a girl the age of his daughter. Some later said it was his daughter.
He begged me for news of his old enemies. Was General Fuentes still in power? Where had the chief of police of San Cristobal hidden the gold looted from Castor’s villa? Did I know if his faithless mistress had married some anemic, hairless dog of a Socialist?
To tell the truth, Castor looked healthier than you do, right now, my friend, as I tell you this. Ha! You are shaking, I see. Your face has gone as white as a glass of milk. Perhaps you had some dealings with the butcher, in his day? Well, of course. Who didn’t?
Now, you are thinking I must have been drunk, or asleep and dreaming this encounter with a vapor.
But no, I was walking in the night streets as sober as the cobblestones. The moon was descending, and the cafes had already closed. There were no rattling chains or bloody fangs, such as you see in children’s books.

I am telling you that the gate of Hell has opened wide, and the bastard has taken back his corporeal form. Nothing you have ever seen will compare with the horrors ahead.
Castor Desayuno, if you can imagine it, is not the worst of those yet to come. God, no. He is just the messenger!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Unfailingly. Repeatedly

“Trust me, it’s not what you think,” says Marti, knocking the ash off the end of her Winston and waving at the bartender for a refill.
“Well,” I answer, “it’s not too hard to figure out. He’s either married or he’s not. And since his left hand has the tell-tale gold birthmark, I’m going out on a limb, here, and guessing married.”
“Well, technically no, but in a way, yes. Really, it’s not what you think.” She swizzles her screwdriver with a tiny bar straw.
“Marti, what I think is, you are now officially living a cliché. And you are too good and gorgeous for a cliché.”
She studies the bowl of honey roasted almonds on the bar, oblivious to the dozen men around her who’d happily swat me off my barstool, just to sit next to her. Marti has that effect on men. Sadly, she also has a keen nose for the ones who are wrong for her, and it is to them she gravitates. Unfailingly. Repeatedly.
“Look,” she says, not looking. “Give me a chance to explain, okay? Ted was married. Past tense. He and Sonya got divorced. Then she was diagnosed with lupus – I think it was lupus, or maybe rheumatoid arthritis – and she asked him to stay in the apartment until the medication started working and she got stabilized.”
“Yeah? How long ago was that?” I ask.
Marti picks up her glass, drains it, and stands. She digs into her purse and throws a twenty down on the bar.
As she turns to leave, she says, “Four years. Satisfied?”
And then she’s gone.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Regarding Utrillo

“But he was a terrible alcoholic, just terrible,” one woman was telling her friend. “His wife had to watch him every second.”
“So many painters are, aren’t they?” said the friend. “What about that Toulouse Lautrec? And Jackson Pollack? His wife must have been a saint.”
They lingered a moment more in front of the canvas, regarding a leaf-strewn sidewalk and the perfect symmetry of a fence diminishing into the distance.
I moved in after them, taking up my position in front of the beautiful urban landscape with its layered light and shade and signature Utrillo perspective. Almost imperceptible, as if an afterthought, was the figure of a woman looking through the bars of the fence. Utrillo, I thought. You give yourself away. In all your paintings it is the city you adore, the cathedrals and streets and boulevards you make love to with your brushes. People are incidental, hurriedly daubed into being with a dot and dash. But your trees! They ply their wares to the viewer. Your stone and mortar come alive. Montmartre was your universe, and you were its cognac-soaked, dazzled stargazer.
A tour group approached, led by a docent, so I stepped back to let them pass.
“Utrillo,” proclaimed the tour leader, “was an Impressionist, yes, but one of the lesser ones.”
With that, the group moved on, eager to find Monet and his water lilies, featured on the museum’s poster.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Just Like Petey

Pipefitters and Joiners Local 212 occupied a squat cinderblock rectangle between two used car lots on Broad Street. By day, all the union's business was conducted in small beige offices. By night the spacious auditorium-cum-banquet hall was used for social and political events, depending on the members' wishes.
Now and then, pipefitters and joiners would get in the mood for something a little different, and that's where I came in: I teach adult art appreciation over at Robert E. Lee Tech. A few of the guys decided it would be fun to have a night class on art or new books, and, after a vote, Tuesday Night Art For Beginners won.
For openers, I took the twenty-some attendees through a typical power point show of American landscapes, European Impressionists and Modigliani's nudes. I pointed out the use of light and shadow or the predominance of certain colors by certain painters.
As the hour was drawing to a close, I clicked to Van Houte’s Dutch modernist oil painting of a boy in a middy-blouse with neckerchief and jaunty blue cap.
I felt the energy in the room shift.
Where there had been polite interest before, I sensed a vivid focus.
“How come he has no face?” asked Pete Vanelli. “Did the painter forget the face?”
“Shit, that looks exactly like a picture my Ma has of my kid brother,” said Johnny DeFalco. “I’m serious! He had a suit just like that. You remember our Petey?” he asked of the man next to him.
“Yeah,” the man said, “he’s the one died in Vietnam.”
Pain made a crooked stick of Johnny’s mouth.
“Hey, I had an outfit like that, too,” said a man in the back row with a pooch of Copenhagen in his left cheek. “Even had the red kerchief.”
“So how come he has no face?” Vanelli asked again, this time more urgently. “What kind of painter paints a little kid with no face?”

I wanted to say that good art makes a specific image universal, that the facelessness was exactly what allowed them to relate to the painting, each man imprinting his own beloved boy on the canvas.
But all I could bring myself to say right then was, “Hey, that’s modern art for you.”