FRIENDS

We will always be friends, we said,
probably half meaning it at the time.
How many times have we said that
or somthing akin to it, knowing
that the promise to call, to stay
in close touch, was at best
half meant and almost certain
not to come to any reality.

I have a catalog of friends, who
I told I would never give up, distance
notwithstanding, we all do, and mine
is replete with both good and bad
intentions, each and every one a failure.

I did not say this to my ex-wife
when we divorced, and I must say
that while I failed at the marriage,
or so she said, I did not ever fail
at not being friends after its end.

TRIPTYCH

A triptych hangs in the gallery of memory. Admission is by invitation only.

The first panel is a time fogged mirror into which I stare. The adopted image hides behind the tarnished silver. My adopted mother’s voice is heard from a hidden speaker: “You were named after my father.” I want to tape his picture to the glass, a face to share the empty space. She has no pictures, she says, he never liked being photographed, said it would steal his soul. She can barely remember him: “He died when I was five.” I ask questions. I need to know more about the giver of names. She falls silent, drawing in, secreting memory.

In the second panel a woman sits, fidgeting. She is a striking blond. I cannot see her as being sixty-one, though she is. I deny that I am fifty. As the Rabbis climb the few steps to the Bimah, she leans over. “You know,” Lois says, “just like you, I was named for your grandfather. She talks freely of herbalism, life in New York, places she wants someday to see. “It’s funny,” she whispers, “I’ve never seen a picture of him; like he had some kind of phobia of being photographed.” Outside the Temple she stands with my mother and sister, arms interlocked, embracing both. I snap the picture. I am not captured on the film. Lois and I drive back to my mother’s apartment, stopping at one of the unending lights on Wisconsin Avenue. She touches my hand: “You know there was one more person named after him, your other sister.” The light changes.

There is only a picture hook in the wall — not even the faint outline that marks the space from which a picture is removed, the wall beneath unbleached by the sun. Lisa, my my sister, like me adopted and as quickly withdrawn, left no outward marks. She is a footnote in my father’s obituary. She is cast off by family, an unmentionable. She is my mother’s deeply hidden scar.

I am repeatedly drawn into this room. It’s walls never change, the pictures periodically replaced. I need to visit, to assure myself of — what? Someday, too soon, this exhibit will close.

First appeared in Pitkin in Progress, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2002)

PICTURE THIS

Words failed him again. They did so ever more often it seemed, but it was possible it was merely that he was trying to express ever more complex ideas ideas in terms others would comprehend. A picture might not be worth a thousand words, but if you had that many, odds are some would be correct. And the listener could sort out which were and which were not. He had made up some words that fit perfectly, but they only drew stares, so he took to drawing pictures. Then he could attach his words and they would mean exactly what he was defining — picture dictionary that anyone could grasp. Well, not anyone perhaps, but most people if they would be the least bit patient. His friends had learned that patience, as he was patient with them in return. But his parents were another matter, never willing to slow down and really listen, always just searching for words that failed them.

LADDER

You have to stop and wonder,
the child said, why people
can take joy in killing, why
people can scheme each other,
why people can cheat if they can.

Birds, the child added, only
try and scheme people for food,
why they cheat for the sake
of cheating, kill for pleasure,
yet we say we are the higher species.

Perhaps, the child concludes,
it is we who are standing
on our heads, looking up
the species ladder, and we
are actually on the bottom.

BEARDED

It is growing more common for men
of a certain age, one I have attained,
to grow beards, and that was before
the pandemic made them ubiquitous
among those of the male gender.

I noted this aloud and a young child
smiled at me and said, “of course,
you have to have a beard because
the hair inside your head has to go
somewhere other than your bald head.”

DRINKING TEA IN KABUL*

Rockets flash briefly
across the chilled sky,
plumes of smoke, ash
carried off
by impending winter.

Over the lintel of the entry
to the Inter-Continental Hotel Chicago,
carved deeply into the marble
Es Salamu Aleikum
staring implacably
through ponderous
brass framed doors
onto the Miracle Mile.
Countless guests
pass below it
unseeing.

My son and I
sit across a small table
spilling bits of tapas
onto the cloth,
laughing lightly
at the young boy
bathed in a puree
of tomato, his shirt
dotted in goat cheese.
My son explains
the inflation of the universe,
gravitational waves
cast off
by coalescing binary
neutron stars.
His words pull me
deeper
into my seat.
We speak somberly
of the jet engine
parked haphazardly
in the Queens gas station
unwilling to mention
265 lives
salted across
the small community.

We embrace
by his door, the few
measured hours run.
He turns to call
his girlfriend,
I turn my collar up
against the November night.

The Red Line train
clatters slowly back
into a sleeping city.
In my room
I brew a cup of Darjeeling.

*”We will drink tea in Kabul tomorrow morning, if God wills it.” – Basir Khan, Northern Alliance Commander, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, 13 November 2001.

First appeared in Hearsay, 2004 and in The Right to Depart, Plain View Press (2008).

ON KNOWLEDGE

There are things children know
that parents will never understand.

Odder still, things a person knows
as a child are forgotten in adulthood.

A child measures the success of a day
by the duration of the parent
demanded bath at its end.

A child know that boundaries, especially
those parentally set, are flexible
and you don’t know where
the limit is until you cross it.

Presents are not special, they are
expected periodically, and only
a parent imagines that Santa
would ignore a child no matter
how “bad” the child had been.

But happily, when a parent
crosses the boundary into the land
of grandparenting, somehow
the knowledge of the child
is refound, very often accompanied
by one or more conspiratorial winks.

BUCKET LIST

Crossing the Rubicon,
or any other European River
for that matter.

Skiing the backcountry
or Black Diamond at Taos Mountain
or Aspen or Vail.

Hiking to the basecamp
of Everest, or walking some portion
or all of the Appalachian Trail.

Standing shoulder to shoulder
with hundreds of others
at the jazz festival.

Hugging my sons or
kissing my grandchildren
on their birthdays.

Forgetting all that we have
lost and that we have
so far survived this damned pandemic.

AMERICAN IDOL

He was well on his way
to achieving his dream
of being a musical idol.

He had long since mastered
the air guitar, could shred
with the best, Hendrix,
Clapton, and he had conquered
the piano fingerings of most
of the Billy Joel Songbook,
his paper keyboard worn flat.

Clarence Clemons was proving
a serious challenge, the air sax
was by reputation the most
difficult of all the instruments.

He could taste success, and all
he now needed to do was
convince his parents to buy
an instrument and pay for lessons.

APSE SOLUTION

One downside of growing up
Jewish is that you never meet
an angel or a church mouse

I have met angels, although they
were in the guise of Bodhisattvas,
and there are a surprising number
if you look carefully enough.

As to church mice, I do have
to wonder why they are symbolic,
for they have vast homes,
direct access to God, or
the Bishop or synod, and if
they aren’t tapping into
the collection plate,
they aren’t real mice, and as
for starving, do they keep
the communion supplies
in a safe, for if not, the mice
are certainly never go hungry.