The Place in the Picture


The woman in the other room is a grandmother.               A grandson watches a grandmother from darkness through a lit door.      A grandson knows nothing about a grandmother.      A grandmother arrived unceremoniously to a grandson who she has never met before.            The articles here confuse intimacy.             Though no one is heartless, this isn’t a feel-good situation where everyone is at odds with everyone at first but eventually finds in the other a kindred spirit.                     This is a story of complete hardness between a mother and a daughter.                A son who is a grandson must navigate the ancient rift between a daughter who is a mother and a mother who is a grandmother in a moment before leaving home to work for the Peace Corp in Botswana.         A grandson must not dig up the past.           A grandson fears not so much the person of a grandmother, who stands barely five feet tall and more often than not is lost in a daydream, as he does her temper.              When she speaks to him he feels held at gunpoint.                  A mother has a similar effect on a son.                     A grandson feels obliged to love a grandmother he has never spent time with.            One essential question is, ‘How can a grandson not know a grandmother?’                  This is one of the essential questions a son won’t ask a mother.             Another is how a mother comes to have so much power.                     A grandmother orders a grandson around like she has always lived there.  She makes him rewash all the dishes when she finds a spot on one.    She browbeats him into pounding out rugs with a broom or the pavement.          He must do not only his own laundry but also launder such fabrics of the common areas as curtains, slips, and covers.          A grandson and a grandmother both have deviated septa.                  If there is one way for them to commiserate with each other, a way more intimate than the rote cues they follow, it is a willingness to talk about nasal cycles.         To talk about their noses brings smiles to their faces.               A grandmother smiling is a major event for a grandson to witness.   A son tells a mother in private.                    If a grandmother wishes she could just leave sometimes, why not just leave sometimes?   If a grandmother adores color and figures, why not join an artists’ studio for the senior citizens?                    A mother asks a son to ride the bus with a grandmother to the rec center in the evening.               A grandmother with an evening activity needs a chaperone to arrive safely.  A grandmother makes a seascape one week and a herd of wild horses the next.                She paints a herd of mustangs from a photograph in a book that belongs to her instructor.           She paints halved apples and pots of flowers.             A grandson looks at these pictures and thinks he wouldn’t mind having one. A grandson thinks they might be worth something to someone. Because she finds other artists at the artists’ studio for the elderly insufferable, a grandmother paints one last still life, a view from a hilltop looking down upon the valley town in northern Italy where she was born, and puts her brushes away forever.      A grandmother claims she’s put her brushes away forever but it isn’t forever.              No one is lying but acting out emotion.                     A grandson sitting in darkness watches a grandmother through a lit doorway.                  She stands before the painting she calls “Asiago” with a brush in one hand and a palette of colors in the other. She touches it up as it hangs there, framed on the kitchen wall.  He doesn’t speak but jots down the changes she makes on the graph paper he used to use to diagram traffic flow on the streets of his neighborhood.                  He watches her painting over portions of her picture with things that could logically go there.      Their routine will go on like this for days and weeks and months, until the day he leaves for Africa.   He writes what’s missing and what’s new to the situation across the grid of his paper as if his words and phrases, like places and objects in the physical world, have fixed coordinates,

we’ll take the bus ride into the hills
follow the bridge out of this city
roll out on a morning like any other

my things are ready

hung on her wall otherwise bare
slopes foot the room for so long
hills not a thing like the ones first painted

set above our misplaced couch
a bowl of cloth flowers
a hat rack
plates in glass

even the cloth flowers

she sets up a fresh canvas every now and again
never makes a mark
I used to ask

I don’t ask her that anymore

last year the far away rectangles
the little patches of land
I noticed more yellow
a new cloud hung in the sky
a small house appeared on the horizon
I don’t know where these people come from

all blank except one

it’s getting darker

I still can’t explain the sun

running my hand over the brown hills
I remembered them green
and new shadows fell over ones there before
before the sun which today shines gray

or doesn’t shine at all

The Eifman Ballet in Berkeley

A performance of Anna Karenina.
The beauty of the production.
Anna’s suicide.

On a personal note,
I remembered my happiness
of a few months ago
when I first got sober.

I said to more than one person,
“This is one of the happiest times in my life”
and feel a little funny about it.

“Anna’s rebirth as a pleasure seeker,” cries Eifman,
“is expressed in the body’s plasticity,
her death the consequence of denying
her child a mother’s love.”

Foreboding comes with my feeling
of not working hard enough.

A World Without Cars

Car Chase

With birthdays but a year and a day apart, and she the elder and young for her age, and he the younger whose turns of phrase grow frankly repetitive, they’d eaten beef in the early days of their joint celebration and across sinewy time, when bodies gray with food beliefs greening, of the baby spinach and veggie lasagna they swore up and down to savor, they left bites on their plates and their stomachs a quarter empty in an inner and outer show of moderation. Pressing her cheek to his to blow out candles one day in their fifties, she wished to herself to feel happy and fulfilled at the time of her death. Like planning a wedding, she arranged the flowers in her head and the ones before them that make the best centerpieces for birthday dinners. He wished that the movie they were seeing later that night would be at least a little entertaining. It was to be a hundred-minute car chase broken up by scenes from the childhoods of the chasers and those chased, as if so many turning points from the deep pasts of so many passengers could justify such a hair-raising event as two cars careening down the highway with little regard for the safety of others. It was after all a hot day and the gist of the chase, like an old-time feud, involved an ancient wound, an insult like a family heirloom, about somebody’s mother that cut to the core of a man’s need to strut his stuff with his chest thrust forward and balls of fist hung like unused mallets. Childhoods aside, the funny part of the chase was the fact that every time the chased sped up, the chaser sped up, and every time the chased slowed down, the chaser slowed down, so that the distance between them remained constant. As you may have guessed, you must suspend your disbelief when it comes to the guzzling of gas. Chalk it up to that six-shooter that in the movies shoots a hundred rounds or more. No one is stopping to reload and underneath it all everyone cares about everyone immensely.

One Perfect Rose

for Phil Doub

One Perfect Rose

If roses won’t prove fatal to write about, wilt they must with pleadings set with idyllic settings. You can’t always see this coming, a biochemical response beyond naming, a nameless byproduct characterized by falling up and swooning. It’s not like it kicks up any dust or anything, or sounds an alarm like a panicked conversation might, arriving both early and often to drive the unsentimental crazy.

I may not be as practical as I sound. Yesterday I went looking for the answer to a question I couldn’t formulate. It went something like, ‘What is wrong with me?’ In contrast, today is the day of days, the most wonderful I’ve ever lived through. It’s been a long time since I worked with my shirt off in the hot sun. I’m planting dwarf roses around stone walkways. Climbing ones over trellised arches. Note the care I take to prune back the element that makes a comedy romantic. It’s worth it even if all romance is hilarious. If my aversion here makes me giggle condescendingly, let me at least informally acknowledge your love of sap as an incredible source of power. But this is about science, man, and the Old Enologists who for centuries now have lived and worked up the road from here. Everyone knows the trick they play, for me a perpetual revelation: In fashioning an early warning system against sharpshooters and bunch rot, encircle your grapevines with ever-blooming roses of the same pH and watch for critters getting after them.

See this rose here. It’s yours for a dollar. You may ask, ‘Why would I pay a perfect stranger a dollar for a rose growing in my own garden?’ See that one there, the one spilling into the one you have your eye on? Before I knocked on your door, I plucked an even prettier one and sold it to your neighbor for a fiver. You get the discount for owning the bushes in the first place. You may ask, ‘Why would my neighbor give a perfect stranger five dollars for a rose out of my garden?’ One, these are beautiful flowers and, like a game of hide and go seek, it is the nature of things. Two, their scents, nasturtium, orrisroot, apple, clove, lemon, are things out of nature. Three, in our love of reds, pinks, and yellows, some splotched ones occur naturally in the wild. Four, what appear to us as our reds, pinks, and yellows may look different to their pollinators. Five is my hunch that, with the obvious exception of the sky, blue doesn’t happen as naturally in the wild as other hues do. Six, nowhere in the Bible, the Rig Veda, the Zend Avesta, or the Homeric poems is the sky called blue or its color even noted. One wonders if they ever looked up or, if they did, what color they saw. Seven, it’s a hot enough day for sweat to soak through from our armpits. Eight, kids are playing air hockey in the air-conditioned basement and roller hockey on the hot asphalt one street over. Nine: smell of grass clippings. Ten: chit-chit-chit of an old-time sprinkler system. Eleven: rubber of cars rolling over pea gravel. Twelve: wind shishing in treetops. Thirteen, the sky is blue and cloudless.

Our early warning system reminds one of the Old Miners’ trick of hanging canaries in their cages in the old mines they dug. Guinea pigs running headlong into waves of carbon monoxide may give us a sense of meaning in our own lives, when April showers once brought Mayflowers and roses fail for phylloxera’s arrival. If ever more sensitive birds get sick before men do, any sentinel species, honey bee, bat, crayfish, swallow, may inform our Climate Change Thinking. The grand dame of resistance writing, Muriel Rukeyser made it more urgent in U.S. 1, her poems from ’38, when she drove to West Virginia to record a wife saying: ‘I first discovered what was killing these men.’ Their labor was subterranean whose reverse alchemy took them away from gold into the business of carbon. Said the doctors at the time, ‘Miner’s phthisis, fibroid phthisis, / grinder’s rot, potter’s rot, / whatever it used to be called, / these men did not want to die.’ So we must answer yes to the question of whether or not silicosis is an occupational disease or a hazard.

The Old Enologists arrived here from Transcaucasia and Asia Minor with pit stops at the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Delta. ‘Hello Franschhoek,’ they said. And ‘Howdy’ to Kakheti, Istria, Valle de Guadalupe, Sherry Triangle, and Colchagua. And ‘Hi’ to Alsace. And ‘How do you do, Porto?’ They soon had everyone driving pests away from their vines and flavoring the wines of a not-so-distant future by amassing clumps of rosemary and lavender around the shanks of rosebushes. This was about the time I found a faience cup in the California loam with a chip like a bite taken out of it. It beamed not the name of a pharaoh but that of a far distant rancher.

‘The unfortunate need of words,’ I tried explaining to everyone. My most obvious emendations were the addition of words, half a dozen big ones plunked down in the middle of a plainspoken elegy, to arrest the attention of the departing dead, John Rutherford, in case he clung to his love of stilted language throughout his transition to the afterlife. In case he clung to sarcasm, I put that in, too. Insult? One or two searing ones. Wordplay? The best I could manage. Practical jokes? I couldn’t think of one in time. Like Shakespeare’s least famous fools, he never caught his own malapropisms, when opinioned is pinioned, odorous is odious, and vigitant is vigilant, so I packed my speech with them, that he might hear his own flawless diction one more time. Though he was never a churchgoer he believed in the function of God in his increasingly secular community. Explain that one to me. In any event, I can see him now, carried up the hill head-up by celestial children. Soon after their departure, the roses in his garden surrendered to convolvuluses.

Finally, the story I was meant to tell could be the trailer of a feature length movie. As sick to my stomach as it makes me to say this, for the best effect, read by rose-light from the penumbra of high personal pathos: He loved her even after she left with that man of hers. He loved her today. He loved her yesterday. He would always love her. When that man of hers died, he cried for her, and he cried. A different she loved a different he, even after he left with that woman of his. She loved him today. She loved him yesterday. She would love him forever. When his woman died, she cried for him, and she cried. They’ve known each other for a few weeks now. They remind each other of the men and women they didn’t go with. They make love in the afternoon, at lunchtime, when their spouses are away and the house is filled with daylight. There are funny parts, too. The funny parts come later. They bring us into a time when everyone looks visibly older.