There will, I am certain, come a day when I will need to do nothing. My computer and my apps will know what I want, will obtain it without asking, will expect my thanks when it arrives, even if they are incapable of understanding what thank you means in a human world. They already plague me with offers and suggestions, if I liked that or even looked at it, I must like this. And they do it with a certainty that only an algorithm can possess. They know me, or so they are programmed, for they cannot think, and they cannot begin to imagine how fickle I can be, or what that term even means. But I know Jeff Bezos won’t give up without a fight. At least if there are a few more billion dollars to be made.
We love drawing lines and borders. There are few things we do better than that. But increasingly we have lost our once finely honed skill at placing them where they ought to be. I won’t even get into walls on borders to keep out families, those like our families were once. I mean small lines and borders. What line decides whether the old inn is ramshackle or quaint? Is this thing I found in the attic a tchotchke or a collectible? And seriously, is what am I about to write doggerel or humorous verse? I’ll be the judge of that one.
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)
You want something. Tell me what it is. Don’t hedge, be open and honest. I may not give it to you. I may not have it to give. I may have it and give it freely. I may have and not want to part with it. I may not have, can get it and give it. Or not. You will not know until you ask for it. I may seek a reason you want it. I may not care. I may seek a reason while not caring. That is my prerogative. I don’t expect you to like that. I may or may not care whether you like it or not. But first you must tell me what it is. I will not guess but I will wait. I am very patient. Or perhaps I am not and you have already missed your opportunity. Life is difficult. You didn’t ask for it to be.
He can spend hours on the wooden bench in the small square in the center of the village. There he is but a statue, staring up at the giant clock face that looms over the square from the turret of the Village Hall. He likes to watch the long hand, arrowlike, make its slow, but inevitable movement, circling the blank outward gaze of the numerals. He does not care much for time, has too much of it some say, too little left, he knows. But here, as he stares fixedly, it stops. There is no motion in that instant, there is only the instant of time. It is no longer real, it is a thought lost or forgotten, and there is only the single moment in which he sits on the wooden bench in the center of the village.
Buddhism teaches that you can never step into the same river twice. I have not stepped in a river since I was eleven. That day I stepped, my foot found a momentary purchase on a mossy rock. The outcome was predictable. I slipped, cut my thighs, broke my tibia, bruised my elbow. I did heal, but ever so slowly, and the cast on my leg did get me sympathy. Despite those upsides, I have looked askance at rivers ever since. Ponds are no problem, and I go into my favorite one with regularity. So I will have to take the Buddhist teachers on faith, for if you don’t step in a river the first time, there’s no chance of a repeat performance.
In Yuma, Arizona today, I have no idea what might have happened. Once, without going to a library and rummaging through microfiche in the dust laden corner of the second basement, I would never be able to find out. And if I did, I would wonder why there was not some simpler way of finding out. Now I can search the internet and know what did happen and what some think happened. I can find truth and conspiracies involving Yuma. It will take some time, but it can be done with relative ease. The problem is that I couldn’t care less what happened in Yuma today or most any day.
There was always breakage. You accounted for breakage. You measured breakage. You didn’t know when breakage would happen, but you knew it would. You hoped to minimize breakage, but not to totally avoid it. It couldn’t be done and there were those who relied on some level of breakage to make a living, who cleaned up after it when it happened, who logged it and measured it, who devised plans to avoid it. And there were those who had a hand in creating it, or seeing it through, but no one really liked matrimonial lawyers except other matrimonial lawyers.
The cat stares down from her new perch atop the living room bookcase. She watches us move about, wondering where she might be. She can tell we are getting increasingly frantic in our search as she is new here, and we are adapting to each other still. We look behind everywhere she might hide, but she is gone. She can tell we are getting ever more nervous. She lets out a whistle, drawing our attention, and seeing us see her, she nods, saying Here I am, foolish ones.
We were told the average background color of the universe was turquoise. She said “that’s because a coyote ripped it from the mountains outside Cerrillos. But now they say it’s actually a shade of dark beige, drying mud colored.” It was a glitch in the software, the astronomers said. The coyote was unmoved.
She sits on the floor sorting coupons and roughly clipped articles on herbs and natural remedies. Occasionally she looks down at the hollow of her chest, at the still reddened slash left by the scalpel. “I’ve got no veins left. I hate those damn needles. If they want to poison me, I’ll drink it gladly. Socrates had nothing on me.”
I rub her feet as she slides into the MRI tube, and pull on her toes. “I can pull you out at any time.” I look at my wrist but there is no time in this room, checked at the door. Just the metronomic magnet. As she emerges she grabs my hand, presses it against my chest. I cradle her head and trace the scar across her scalp, trying to touch the missing brain matter, the tumor it nestled, pushing aside the brittle hair. “Lightly toasted,” she whispers with a weak smile. She hates white coats and stethoscopes. “They’re the new morticians.” They take her in small sections. She is a slide collection in the back of my closet, on the pathologists shelf. I want to gather them all and reassemble her. I want her to be a young girl of fifteen again.
Coyotes wander down from the Sandia hills. They gather outside the Santo Domingo Pueblo, sensing the slow seepage of heat from the sun baked adobe. There is no moon. They know each star. They stare into the darkened sky. They see only turquoise.
Reprised from March 31 2016