In a small storefront, in an older neighborhood of the city, I found it. Sepia coated with a fine sheen of dust and neglect, it lay on the table amid a stack of others, as though a leaf of phyllo in a poorly made stack fresh from the oven. I knew it as I looked at it, touched it gently, that it had once held a magic incantation, that if you allowed it, could take you on a static journey where stillness was infinite. I read it though it was wordless, but clear, it was a map to the country of dreams. Not mine, I knew. Mine had the mundaneness of Chinese menu ordering, column A, column B, or sorting socks still hot from the dryer. I saw in it possibilities, where ties and restraints could have no meaning, where crawling and flying were coequal skills and walking was so evolutionarily regressive. I thought of purchasing it. The price was certainly reasonable. I thought of framing it with archival mats, and encasing it in museum glass, hanging it on a wall, or placing it behind the mattress where it might seep through like a ferryman plying the river of night, never quite touching opposing shores. I left it in the store that day. I haven’t gone back to see if its patina has grown. For me it could only be an artifact. A map is of so little use, if you have no destination.
“Look, I know it’s short notice, but I had to get away from the west coast. I was losing it so I threw my stuff into the van I bought and high-tailed it here.”
“It’s not short notice, moron, it’s no notice at all. We aren’t even friends. Gloria’s my friend and according to her, you’re just an acquaintance. So go park yourself in a lot at the airport. Find your own place tomorrow, or just put your stuff in storage. Now it’s late and I need my sleep.”
Jennifer helped me haul the last of my boxes to the basement storage area she shared with the other tenants of the old house. She even threw a pillow and blanket on the saggy sofa and said “a week at most and you are out of here, no excuses, no bullshit, and no but Gloria said. She already thinks I’m insane for letting you past the front door. The blue towel is mine and keep your hands off my shampoo and conditioner. You buy your own food and if you borrow anything you write it on the list by the phone. We’ll settle up later. And don’t even think of running off. My brother’s a cop in Cleveland and between us we will hunt you down.”
I cooked her dinner the next night using nothing from her refrigerator. Bought a decent bottle of a cru bourgeois from St. Estephe and couple of cheap wine glasses from Goodwill. She said “thank you, this was something I didn’t expect.” She put a sheet on the sofa and a better pillow. I traded the van for an old Chevy Vega even up. It had a good engine but needed some bodywork.
“This is a safe neighborhood, but with a car that looks like that, with an AM radio only, you can pretty much guarantee it won’t get stolen or broken in.”
“That was my bet as well. Figured I’d be safer this way.”
“No, you really didn’t. It was all you could get for that piece of crap van before it’s engine fell out, so you cut and ran. But it’s a decent story so go with it. Most people will probably buy it. Next time, though, not lime green. You can see that thing a block away. So park it down the block, at least until the neighbors there complain.”
Her lease was up two months later, but I had gotten work waiting tables at Chu’s Peking Heaven and between us we could afford a two-bedroom walk-up in a neighborhood no worse than the original. She still made me park the Vega a block away. Small enough price to pay. We fell into a comfortable lifestyle. We both loved movies. She accepted me as a poet much as I did she as an artist. We decorated with her paintings. She would paint borders around my poems, find old frames and mats and label each a minor masterpiece. Her friends knew her better than to argue the point, so I adopted them immediately. Most said they liked me, the really honest ones said they could tolerate me, but that was a step up from the usual specimens in her collection. In a dream one night I imagined myself a bug, pinned to a board, stored in a drawer in the musty basement storeroom of a museum. I told her the dream assuming she would apologize for her friends, or say it wasn’t so at all. Instead she began calling me Kafka. I could live with that, I thought, and vowed to read some Kafka. I will honor that vow one of these days, I just don’t know when. Probably right after I fully comprehend just what is what in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. At least she promised to stop calling me Franzie in public.
That, of course lasted all of two weeks, or maybe it was two days. It wasn’t like time in a nine-to-five world mattered all that much. Einstein said something like time was relative. When you’re twenty-three it is simply relatively unimportant because as far as you can imagine, it is in endless supply. Now I know better, though it still isn’t relative, but its speed is inversely proportional to its supply. I guess I always knew that. The return trip is always faster, even though the speed and distance are the same. The sameness is in the outer, exposed mind, but the trip is measured by the inner, or emotional mind and the two need not, and rarely do, agree. Anyway, all too soon I was Franzie again until it came to me and I bought her the old copy of Tolkien. Inside of a week I was Frodo and if she got pissed at me, the landlord, her Datsun, it didn’t much matter what, I was Baggins. That was a change, but change was rare for us. And we liked it like that, or that’s what we told ourselves, and a lie from your own mouth was a certain kind of truth particularly when shared with someone who is as prone to lying as you are. And every day the Vega was right where I left it though it had acquired a blue paisley racing stripe out of contact paper. Stuff has amazing glue so rather than rip the already questionable paint job I learned to like the racing stripe.
There was supposed to be a cat in this story, one being chased by a dog. It could have been a fox, I suppose but they are not seen here that much anymore. It might well have been a crow chased by a hawk, that happens around here with fair regularity but writing about the sky is so very difficult from an earthbound perspective. The mind may take flights of fancy, but has focus only when well anchored. Anyway, the dog never got off its leash and the cat seems to have found another bird feeder where the birds are a bit less smart and the squirrels a bit less mean than ours so there was no cat either. I do get that this means little or nothing to you, but is probably because the only chase scenes you like involve cars, and that doesn’t happen around here all that often. Perhaps the dog will tear free of its leash tomorrow, the cat will return and this story will find its conclusion, and then again, perhaps not. You will have to ask the cat, when you see him.
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 was 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.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. At 12, my parents gave me a choice of lessons: piano or dance. I had two left feet. I chose piano. It did not move. My mother smiled at my choice. She knew what my decision would be before she asked. My mother was like that.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. Each Wednesday at 4 P.M. mother dropped me off in the driveway of the cottage-like house, hidden in the cul-de-sac. I waited on the ivy covered portico until the prior student left. I never knocked on Mrs. Schwarting’s door. No one ever knocked on Mrs. Schwarting’s door. No one ever came in with me. Piano was something I learned alone.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. Her hair was the gray of a Buffalo winter, a sky promising snow. Her hair was the blue of a sky bleached by the August sun. Her hair, she said, was once blonde, like autumn wheat. Each Wednesday I took off my coat and hung it on the single hook by the door. One hook, she said, one student. One year I played a duet with Larry Feldman. Each March Wednesday Larry’s coat or mine would lie on the floor. One hook, one coat.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. Her first name was Mrs. That’s what my mother wrote on the check I always put in the little basket on the top of the piano. Once, my mother forgot her checkbook. She gave me cash. When I put it in the basket, Mrs. Schwarting clucked her disapproval, “no bills, only checks. Please to vait on porch until your mother arrives.” The door closed behind me: “no bills, only checks.”
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. She was five foot one. She would stand behind me, “keep spine straight, zat is how you must play,” her head hovering on my shoulder like a pet bird. She smelled of lavender, her breath of slivovitz. She was German. Her house was German. Her English was German. Her piano must have been German. It loved Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, tolerated Mozart but despised Satie. “It is the fingers, she said, the piano cares not.” The piano cared.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. Czerny was her mentor, she said. “You vill play each piece at least fife times each day. Every day, fife times. You vill write down each day how many times you play each piece.” Each day I sat at the piano in the living room. Each day I played each piece five times. One day I lost count, and played one piece a sixth time. My fingers felt guilty. I played it badly. When the sun was out, the only tempo was presto. I always played fortissimo. Mother listened. Mother counted.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. She would hire a hall for a recital each May. We would sit in “just so order, not to move, not to speak, just to sit. You vill never look to your hands. Zay are at ze end of your arms, I am certain. You vill play slowly. If you play fastly, you vill play again.” Mrs. Schwarting was German. Her house was German, her piano was German. Her fingers which always tapped my shoulder to set the tempo were German. I told my mother she was a Nazi. My mother laughed, “she’s just German.” I thought, maybe she was Eichmann’s secret lover. I thought maybe she was Schumann’s love child. I never liked Schumann. Schumann was German.
My sister took lessons from Mrs. Schwarting. She thought Mrs. Schwarting’s piano was German. My sister could reach a full octave easily, I had a span of a seventh. In my last recital I played Für Elise. I played it badly.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. In the lobby of the Osaka Hyatt Hotel there is a piano. At three in the morning, fresh from a trans-Pacific flight, I wander the lobby. The desk clerk smiles. I sit at the piano. My back is straight. I play the opening ten measures of Für Elise. I still cannot reach an octave. I play it badly.
A robin is slowly building her nest. She sits on one of the higher branches of our still winter-naked maple. She anxiously tucks small twigs, weaving the impenetrable. Each time I walk beneath she sits up and chides me. She is an expert in propriety.
My lover and I walk down a rutted path, grasses worn down by our predecessors. We walk for half a day, half an hour. Time does not matter. We stop to rest. We are encircled by towering pines. Several, I know, want to collapse onto a soft bed of needles. All want to open the sky. Neither she nor I remember why we are here. Shards of passing clouds ignore us, offer no answers. Our fingers interlace. Did I do this? Did she? My skin is wrinkled, dry bark. I have been in this forest once before, I think — perhaps that was a dream. I do not say this. For her this is newness. She is awed by the redwood, something so large, something so fragile, how does it lick at heaven without retribution? My lover smiles: “I have been to places like this, but never here.” The sun retreats slowly, parting beams dance through slivered breaches in the canopy. The chill of onrushing evening draws us back along the path. We step in each others’ measured footprints. We startle a robin from a margining bush. It flies angrily into a forced solitude. Dusk cedes the reluctant sun.
Later, home, I walk past the barren maple: the robin stares down at me. Passing beneath, the sun breasted bird whispers “we prize our peace and remember those who would deny it to us.” It is night.
ENTRY: March 23, 1992
Damn David, what was he thinking? I should be over at Shirley’s playing mah jongh, but no. Ma, you need some adventure in your life. Like I need hemorrhoids, I need this. Schvitzing like a fountain, I’m the queen of Mardi Gras. Who is he kidding? I’m a Jewish dishrag in a swamp, Fat Tuesday. For this I raised him, fed him, and bought him a fine education at the best goyishe schools money could buy. And he sends me to a swamp. Was I such a bad mother, I deserve this? Tea at Sibley’s, that’s where I should be, but No, “Ma, you’ll have fun.” If this is fun, God, bring on some suffering. Where did I go wrong to deserve such tsuris. Okay, so maybe there were days I didn’t change the diaper soon enough. He resents me so much he sends me here? Not a Jew in sight, and these fakokteh masks, I’m schvitzing my mascara off. And what kind of hotel has fans and no air. Local experience my tuchus. At least in the mountains the air moves. Here, bupkis. So maybe it was her idea, that princess he married. This is her way of getting even, for what, I don’t know. She sits around the “Club” all day while he breaks his back making a life. He would have been better off with that shiksah he dated in college, God should cut out my tongue. Shirley save me from this madness. Ethel, where the hell are you when I need you. And Saul, may it be really warm in the place you are going, you putz, for giving me a son like this.
ENTRY: August 18, 2005
So he calls this morning, out of nowhere, my David. He who’s allergic to the phone, how often he calls. David, whose diapers I changed, it seems like forever, the sheets till he was ten. His pediatrician had some long name for it, but I knew he was just too lazy to go to the bathroom during the night. It’s not like he had to wash the pishy sheets after all. And Lizzie hated handling the smelly things, but that’s what maids do I, had to keep telling her. So he calls this morning, this son of mine, this child who, God willing, will say to me before I’m deaf as a stone like that composer, before they plant me in some discount plot with no view, Ma, thanks for all you did for me. Like he even remembers! From him I get mishegas in heaps, and tsuris in unhealthy doses. And he calls in the morning? Who died, I say. And he goes silent. The last time he was silent he was under general anesthesia, with a tube down his throat. But now, he calls me for the first time in forever and then goes silent when I open my mouth. I want to say thanks for the bupkis, but I bite my tongue, mothers shouldn’t be sarcastic. Who died, I repeat. “Dad is dead,” he whispers. I say, “like I don’t know my father is dead, he died years ago, when you were still pishing your crib.” “Not grandpa,” he says, “dad. You know, MY FATHER.” Oh, I said, thanks for telling this to me. “The memorial service is Thursday in the Interfaith Chapel over at the U.” This I truly needed to know, I’m not at all sure why. To me, I buried Saul, the schmuck, years ago, nice and deep in my memory, didn’t want his head popping up. I buried the putz and now he’s got to go and die again, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. So now I’m supposed to stand there in black, which makes me look twenty pounds heavier than I am, and pretend to cry, like I’d risk getting tears on good Italian silk. Better they shouldn’t give me the shovel, I’ll dig him deeper still. And with the black lace for the head, like a bit of drek landed on my hair. So maybe that’s why he died, so I should stand around in black and everyone should stand around and whisper, just so I can hear, “look at Yetta, she looks so old, and has she put on the pounds.” God, why do you punish me so? Okay, so I made a mistake, I married the putz. You blessed me with a child, so what if he can’t remember my birthday and thinks Mother’s Day is sometime in October, when he recalls it at all. So now God, you think I haven’t suffered enough. Like my tsuris meter is reading empty and I need a refill? With a sense of humor like that God, it’s no wonder we had to invent the Borscht Belt. Okay, so we had a couple of decent years, and the Caddy was a nice touch, but why would he think I’d want red? You go figure. And a memorial service at the Interfaith Chapel, what’s with that, unless it’s cheaper than the Chapel at the Schul. So he thinks maybe he’ll pick up a shiksah in the next life, fat chance. He didn’t want his non-Jewish friends to be uncomfortable, David said. Like either of those goys could be uncomfortable in a room where there’s wine. Discomfort? They should have shared a bed with Saul, they want to know discomfort. You want sorrow? Feel some for the Levy’s, next plot over, Saul, now they have to put up with your snoring for all eternity. And me, all I got is this silent house with the toilet in the guest room that never flushes right.