FOYLES

Charing Cross Road
booksellers woven
amid theaters
cramped sagging shelves
an out of print
Christine Evans,
slim, collected works
of those
long forgotten
never noticed
a damp chill
enfolds old leather
as the door opens
and shuts on
a late February.
Morning, my purchases
sink in the plastic bag
dancing as I walk
to the tube
at Leicester Square
with my new gems
destined to cause
a sag
in my bookcase.

PASSING

He has been gone
over a year

and they need to erect
the headstone before

the first hard freeze,
but it has rained

for several days
and the ground

is too soft.
Although I can

still hear his cackling laugh
he lingers less and

his smell is slowly fading
from the old bomber jacket.


First appeared in The Amethyst Review (Canada), Vol. 8, No. 2, (2000)

DISCOVERY

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.

STORY: FRAGMENT ONE

“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.

UNBEGUN STORY

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.

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 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.

PIANO LESSONS

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.