Saturday, July 28, 2012

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Thoughts

Her name is Violet Samson. She can not believe, and neither will you, how many times people get it wrong. “Violent?” they ask, upon introduction, and she says “No, Violet.” But they still don’t hear her correctly and they ask again, “Violent?” And she knows what they’re thinking: “How could anyone have such an awful name?” So she repeats it, louder this time, “Violet,” and sometimes she has to spell it, “V-i-o-l-e-t, as in the flower.” And then the chances are good that the person will say “Ahhhh, the flower, so you must be a gardener.” And she is not.
Violet Samson owns a toy store on Myrtle Avenue, next to the Stop ‘N Shop Supermarket. Which doesn’t matter except when someone calls for directions. Her store is small and easy to miss, and also basically without a name, so she gives directions based on her proximity to the Stop ‘N Shop. And still, people have trouble locating her. And the truth is, she doesn’t care.
The toys she sells are not new. Some are “gently used” and some are a total wreck.  Only a very few are what could be called “special.” There is that tin caboose that might be worth something, but probably not, and before long she’ll let it go for $1.50. 
She sells puzzles with missing pieces, teddy bears with whole patches of fur pulled out, board games without the dice, and dolls with broken arms or chipped noses. 
People bring these things to her — the eyeless, the stringless, the shoeless — because it’s so hard to throw them out. Violet considers she is offering a service, and her customers feel that way too. It’s all a bit vague, the business end of things, and then there’s the fact that Violet does not particularly like children. The irony is not lost on her. She once thought she would be a librarian but here she is, in the toy business.
Of course there is the matter of the inheritance. She didn’t have to say yes, she could just as easily have opened her mouth and formed the word no. And then she wouldn’t be the owner of a used toy store. So how did it happen? She asks herself that question from time to time.
She didn’t say no to the other part of the inheritance, either, the large house on Castro Street, where she spent her childhood, physically, although her mind was often someplace else. The house with the garden that her mother adored, the garden that is now a ruin. She is not good with living things, hence a garden where the few flowers that have survived droop their way from sunup to sundown.
She is not good with living things but still they seem to seek her out. Her neighbor, Phoenicia, has three cats, and they could just as easily stay on their own side of the fence. Violet doesn’t understand why they insist on squeezing through wooden slats and prickly vines to make their way over to her. She knows there are three cats, but she suspects they are not always the same three cats. 

It’s been many years since Phoenicia moved in next door. The cats keep visiting, always three in number, but not always the same size or color. And even though she is not, by any stretch of the imagination, what could be called a “cat person,” Violet is quite certain that felines do not morph. So she thinks, when she thinks about it at all, that at least two have died and new ones have taken their place. But she has no idea what they are called. She just calls them “Phoenicia’s cats,” and she wishes they would leave her alone.
The garden is dark, even during the day. That’s what happens when things growing from the bottom-up merge with things growing from the top-down. It is shady and musky and the perfect place for her when she can’t sleep, which is most nights. She doesn’t remember the last time she slept through until morning without a break of torturous wakefulness. 
The garden is the perfect place for her and her thoughts. Lately, she finds her mind turning toward the dark place, the land of regret, of “what if” and “why not.” The garden is a hospitable setting for entertaining such thoughts, any time at all, but especially around midnight. She’s not certain why this is true, but it is. 
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Thoughts. Tonight she’s thinking of a letter she would like to write to Edith Fogelman who was once a friend, but not for the last twenty-seven years. It occurs to Violet that perhaps she should write an apology. It was inappropriate, she realizes now, the way she was always criticizing Edith’s eating habits. But then she thinks perhaps she should write and demand an apology from Edith. Edith is the one who borrowed her coral bead necklace and lost it somewhere in a snowbank. Or so she said. What was she doing in a snowbank, anyway? There was always something unsavory about Edith Fogelman.
In the end, she decides not to write anything at all. It would take so much effort, going into the house, searching out the necessary paraphernalia: pen, paper, envelope, stamp. She stays sprawled where she is, in the deck chair amidst the greenery and the brownery, and she continues to think her thoughts.
She thinks about Mooky Caraway, the teaching assistant in her Freshman English class, who wrote a poem for her, all those years ago, rhyming “Violet” with “amulet” in the first stanza, and with “omelette” in the third. Violet told Mooky he was forbidden from using her name in any other poem, ever, and even though Mooky cried and made one promise after another, it was all over between them, before anything had started. It's just not in Violet's nature to give out second chances. It surprises her to realize that she hasn't quite succeeded in erasing Mooky from her memory. 
She thinks about the man who came into the toy store yesterday, looking for something for his nephew he said, and she told him she didn’t have anything electronic and he called her a fascist commie maggot pig, a phrase she is still trying to decipher. And she wishes she had had something better to hurl back at him, something more colorful than “degenerate creep.” It bothers her that her vocabulary is so limited, even under the best of circumstances, but especially when she’s under stress.
She thinks about the little accident she had in the kitchen, just that evening, with a knife that wasn’t sharp enough and a carrot that was too thick, and how even a dull knife can make a deep cut. She thinks about how surprised she was to discover that her blood looked like smashed strawberries, while all this time she thought it was the color of boiled beets. 
And she thinks about her neighbor, Phoenicia, who used to be a hair stylist, and is now a certified (or is it licensed?) hypnotist. Violet wonders what would happen if she were to go to Phoenicia. Professionally, that is. It’s a mighty big if, but if she were to go, what would she ask for? 

You probably have to ask something from a hypnotist, otherwise how will they know what to do with you? And Violet doesn't smoke, so that’s out. She doesn’t need help remembering anything, that is definitely not her problem. She has the opposite problem. Could Phoenicia help her with that? Could she help her to forget? 

Could Phoenicia go Abracadabra, and when it was all over and she snapped her fingers, or whatever it is hypnotists do, would Violet open her eyes and see a whole different world? Or see herself different in the world? Or just not care so much? Is it possible she could just stop thinking her thoughts, even for one minute? She doesn’t think that’s asking too much. She wonders what Phoenicia charges for her services.
It is the shortest night of the year. Violet doesn’t know this, she doesn’t keep track of such things. She only knows that it is warm enough to sit outside in the garden in only her nightgown, with a light blanket covering her shoulders. 

Without planning or direction her eyes close, all by themselves, and she falls into something that resembles sleep, for what is left of the rest of the night. 

She doesn’t wake up when Stinky Marie, Phoenicia’s newest cat, a skinny gray creature who looks a lot like a boy’s gym sock, climbs up into her lap, to dream along with her. 

Violet doesn’t believe she dreams at all. But if she knew that she did, and one of Phoenicia’s cats was sharing those dreams, she would not be happy about it. 

Which is why Stinky Marie, who knows more than you might think it is possible for a cat to know, is gone by the time the sun rises over the wilting trumpet vine.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Family Fiction: Part 2 — "Making Steam"

I recently visited a country house that had old fashioned radiators and seeing them led me right into this fictionalized memory.

that's a big old
radiator over there
and if you didn't recognize it 
you could read the words right on the side:
American Radiator Co.

haven't seen one of these in years
but here it is
in this quiet room
in a big beautiful country house
high up in the hills

on Friday the 13th
2 o'clock in the afternoon
in the middle of summer
and the year is 2012

but then

it's not

it's late afternoon, getting darker, at
621 Elsemere Place in the Bronx
my grandma's apartment

I smell a chicken roasting in the oven
so now I know it's Friday here

winter isn't far off
the windows are closed against the 
dusky chill
grandma goes into every room
making sure the radiators are turned on

I lie on my back
on the floor
close to the couch
but not on the couch

I don't go on the couch because
it is itchy

Dad calls it the horsehair sofa
and when he says that Mom says 
"sha Morty
don't put ideas into her head"

but it's too late
the ideas are already in my head
I am not going on that couch
made from a horse

that's why
I lie on the floor

and when no one is looking
I scrooch myself over
until my head is
under the couch

it smells good here
not like a horse

I don't know what a horse smells like
you can't smell a horse through the TV

but under the couch 
it smells
like wood
and lemon
and flannel

and the pale pink
of a bubble bath
with not too many bubbles
just enough

with my head under the couch
I am anywhere and nowhere
and also

I am invisible

with my head under the couch
and my eyes closed 
I can't see anyone and that means
no one can see me

even if they walk right over my legs
sticking out in the middle of the
living room floor

so what?

they wouldn't know for sure it was me
they might think it was but
they wouldn't know
for sure

because if you don't see a face
how do you know who it is?

you don't know

and that's how I like it

I don't want anyone to know I'm here
I don't want anyone to talk to me
I don't want anyone to ask me any questions

mamela, do you want some juice?
do you need a pillow?
how about a blanket?
did you just sneeze?
does your throat feel scratchy?
are you sure you don't want some juice?
a cookie maybe?

it's okay to be asked because
sometimes I do want juice
sometimes a cookie is nice

but not on this Friday afternoon
when I am still 8 years old

not on this day
when the radiators are turned on
all through the apartment
in every room
even in the bathroom

even in the back room
where there might or might not be a ghost
who is sometimes sleeping and sometimes laughing 

on this day
in the soft grey afternoon light

I wait to hear it

the first sad whistling whispery sigh
of the radiator

making steam

(or maybe
it is the ghost
in the back room


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Family Fiction: Part 1 — "What Eve Does Not Say"

This is an imagined encounter between my fictional parents, 70 years ago. 

july 1942
she is 15
a boy is in love with her
he wants to marry her

he is also 15
he looks 25
she looks 21

they go to the Bronx Zoo 
he brings a blanket
and a brown paper bag

they sit on the blanket
far away from the smelly elephant house

she is careful to cross her legs
at the ankles

she has nice legs

she is not wearing stockings
and her painted toe nails
peek out of her sandals

he says
"pink is pretty"

what he means is
his mother and two older sisters
paint their toe nails red
and it scares him

but this girl 
who he wants to marry
wears pale pink polish
and it is pretty

and she is pretty

in a way that everyone
and also in another way
that only he recognizes

"what's in the paper bag?"
she asks him

she hopes he hasn't brought 
a bottle of wine
or worse
a bottle of beer

she doesn't like the way
beer smells

she has never tasted any

she once tasted wine
but it was too sweet
and gave her a headache

she wants to pull
her knees up

she is getting a cramp
in her legs
but she doesn't know how
she could arrange her skirt
with her knees up

so she just reverses her feet
and now the left ankle
rests on top of the right

and there is some
relief in her calves

"apples," he says
and opens the bag
there are two apples
"I saved them from lunch"

"two?" she asks

"my mother gave me one
but then I took another one
for you"

he hands over an apple

she wishes he had a knife
or if she had a knife
she would peel the apples

her mother taught her how
to do it so the peel
comes off in one long
curly strip

she does not want to think 
about her mother

her mother would not like this
she would not like this
at all

she doesn't approve of sitting
on the ground
not even on a blanket
because cold and damp can seep
through a blanket

what if you catch a chill?
why aren't you on a bench?
there's a perfectly good bench right over there
what are you doing at the zoo in the first place?
put your hanky over your nose
you don't want to breathe in the dirt
how do you know the apple
was properly washed?
and what if his mother
intended that apple for someone else?
what if that other person is going hungry now
because of you?

she doesn't want to hear her
inside her head
but she hasn't learned yet
how to not hear
her mother's voice

so she bites into the apple
she has good strong teeth
it's a small sound
but it is enough to stop 
her mother's voice

"that's good," she says
about the apple
and she smiles at him
but she does not laugh

he laughs too much
he laughs every day
he is always laughing

she doesn't think there is
that much to laugh about

she doesn't want to encourage him

she thinks if she only smiles
and not with her lips open
but with them shut
just letting the ends of her mouth go up
then he will get the message

but she is wrong

he laughs

he says "it sure is good"
and she doesn't think he means
only the apple

she notices he hasn't bitten 
into his apple 
he holds it in his right hand
and rolls it around

he never takes his eyes off of her

this is something else 
she doesn't like
his laughter and his stare

how can she tell him?

she could say
maybe it would be better
if you didn't laugh so much
and also
please don't look at me"

she practices the words 
inside her head

this is what she wants to say
but also
she doesn't want to be rude

she is wondering about
the difference between
being rude and being honest
when he leans in close

and kisses her on her

this is not the first time
he has done this

he kissed her in Crotona Park
two times
last week

and he kissed her in front of the
Chinese Restaurant
on Tremont Avenue

that was wrong
she told him

because people 
were walking by

what if somebody 
recognized her

she does not want a reputation

but at the zoo
this far from the elephants
there is nobody around

and he brought her an apple

and she thinks she should say
but she doesn't want to say

she says "Morty"

and then she doesn't know
what else to say

she doesn't say anything
and he says

"Eve, I want to marry you"
and she says

"not now, Morty"

which she knows is not
the same thing as saying

Friday, July 20, 2012

My Body

my body is not 
a tree
an old sock
an accordion

it is not 
a ballad
a railroad track
a second-hand car
a shiny new penny

my body is not 
burnt toast
a splinter
a fire alarm

my body is not
a loose button
a loose tooth
or a loose cannon

my body is not 
a see-saw
a tornado
a bluegrass band

my body is not a lie

my body is not 
a matryoshka doll
a bicycle wheel
a thimble
a ukelele

it is not
a girl scout troop
a heron's nest
a pocket knife
or a silk kimono

my body is not X-rated

it is not 
a broken marionette
a ripe melon
a map
or a metaphor

my body
is not a loom
an orchid
a wrist watch
a marble

it does not 
jump rope
sky dive
play hide and seek
or jacks
or red rover

my body is not pink, petite, punctual

it is not 
on call
or re-designed

my body is not 
or under construction

my body is not grammatical
it is not well-punctuated
it is not polite

my body is not poetic

my body is not over

Sunday, July 1, 2012

small poems, june 2012

step carefully
around each seashell —
let the gulls laugh at you

why do you follow me?
I am lost

at the open door
of the neighborhood bakery 
pausing — just to sniff

old friend
come sit beside me
let us sing with the birds

morning fog —
crossing this bridge
will I get to the other side?

crossing the bridge
I didn't recognize you
under your new umbrella

under my umbrella —
I choose not to say hello

rainy morning 
don't look at me like that
dear frog

water lilies
a deeper pink
after the rain

rainy day
slowly the sky 
drips into the sea 

the sweetest 
plums —

rainy garden
it would be so easy
to disappear here

sudden downpour
a basket of cucumbers
can't run for shelter

shaking rain from her hair
the farmer waters her spinach

early morning rain
the turtle remains in its shell
so do I

swooping down
into a pile of fallen rose petals
the girl sneezes

waking from a dream
I cry out for my sister —
the crow also cries

first day of kindergarten 
the girl tells her mother
not to worry
(inspired by Christina Malman's cover art for The New Yorker magazine, September 14, 1946)

bride's bouquet
2 butterflies also
walk down the aisle
(inspired by Ilonka Karasz's cover art for The New Yorker magazine, April 26, 1927)

under Daddy's fedora
my little sister
can't stop laughing

Daddy's fedora and cigar —
her own pink tutu —
my little sister

her wild laugh
we are girls again
jumping waves at Jones Beach

all the way to 
Lake Minnehaha
the car shakes with our laughter

the fortune teller turns her gaze
from my outstretched palm

lost in a daydream
until I see them —
poppies at sunset

you would never suspect them
but daisies
are the worst gossips

in a moment
stolen from the garden
all the peonies

even here
atop the ferris wheel

under the night sky          blackberries

saying goodbye one more time
Grandmother visits me
in a dream