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).
I stooped and spoke to a stone, asking the question. I was here before you arrived and I will be her long after you leave. I held the sand in my hand warm from the sun, asking the question. I came after your arrived and I will leave long before you are gone. I held the winter wind on the tip of a finger, asking the question. I am not here now and I have never been here. I touched the waters to my lips, asking the question. I was above you when you came and I will be below you when you go. I saw the flames dance before me, asking the question. You were ashes once and you shall be ashes again. I stood mired in the clay clinging to my legs, asking the question. It is of me you were formed and it is to me you will return. I sat at the foot of God blinding light, asking the question. You cried to me at birth and you will cry to me at death.
No one looked up when the Buddha walked into the deli and took a seat at the counter, “Pastrami on rye, and lean, with mustard on the side, and two slices of full dill and a side of slaw.”
As he sipped the Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda, the waitress smiled at him, asked, “Are those robes comfortable, winter isn’t all that far off, you know.”
Buddha smiled, and with a serene calm said, “It all depends on what you wear beneath, I prefer a silk-cotton blend, but some I know want only organics.”
As he finished, a younger, swarthy man entered, his robes bleached white from the sun, his dark hair long, sandals worn down, and came over to Buddha, sat down with a nod to the waitress, and instantly a corned beef on pumpernickel appeared, at which point Buddha muttered “Christ, how do you do that?”
The seed speckles the snow like buckshot piled neatly under the branch where we, fingers numbed, tied the little chalet to the lowest limb of the ancient maple. The birds stand staring as the squirrel swings slowly in the breeze.
After all that has happened, after all of the changes tumbling one upon another, after breathing again new air, after ceding fear to hope when I sit down to write it all I have at the end is a small glass of snow in the middle of July.
You came, Harlan, to Rochester somewhere in an endless winter, “Ellison in Tundraland” you said. We all chuckled approvingly.
You said a short prayer climbing into the rusting Opel, sliding on the edge of oblivion, and the approaching snowplow.
You stood, hoarse, smelling of Borkum Riff and English Leather, a tweed jacket over a polo shirt and thinning jeans and told us of the insanity of television, a medium pandering to idiots. We nodded, hoping you would finish before the Star Trek rerun.
We sat in Pat and Sandy’s as you consumed two orders of fries, and a dwindling bowl of ketchup. Later we sat in the Rat, staring at the empty bottles of Boone’s Farm until you took pity and ordered two pitchers. You were our patron saint.
Solzynitsyn was exiled to a cabin in Vermont, staring as the leaves greened and fell under winter. You served your banishment in the land of lost souls, miles from any reality.
First published in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2000)
It wasn’t exactly what you wanted, but you probably wouldn’t have been all that upset. It was all about you, but not for you, that comes later, and we know you’ll be pleased. This one was for some of us who needed this to be able to keep going, to keep from looking only back, into the darkness that is our shadow. He said it was a celebration, and it was that, and we put on our best faces, hid our tears as best we could, and as we stood in the cold air in the cemetery, we only wished it over, and when the sun appeared suddenly, we knew you wished that as well, but in your case, it was more likely that you wanted us working on the party we will soon throw for you and that one, too will be for us, but among the things we miss you for, was your willingness, you desire to share.
I want the sky to be that certain crimson tinged with burnt sienna and cinnabar, but today winter is holding sway and the sun sneaks off behind the gray wall from which it only peeked, and left the day one of grayscale where intensity replaced beauty and even the cardinal opted to stay high in the spruce, offering only an occasional glint of red. We come to expect this, it is a season of colorlessness, and the only question is whether we can hold out until spring returns the full pallette and nature takes up brush again.