Only weeks after my adoption had been finalized, I was whisked to the first day of first grade with a new first name – along with the new last one. The Catholic school in which I was enrolled recognized only the names of saints. This obliterated the only first name I’d ever known, “Honey,” and bumped up to first-name status my middle name, Elizabeth (Hebrew for “consecrated to God”).
My own biological parents had never married, and their own parents saw to it that they were released from parenthood so they could pursue their educations. I was properly delivered to the Guardian Angel Home in Philadelphia and subsequently placed in the arms of Mrs. Nana, an older woman who had worked at the Home for years. At the time, Father McMahon and the Home’s small staff were preoccupied with the upcoming County inspection of the facility. With new linoleum being laid, plumbing being updated, and generally everything being brought up to fire code, we orphans were in the way. The older children were temporarily transferred to the nearby Saint Joseph Home for boys without fathers. I was a constantly wailing infant girl, requiring ‘round-the-clock rocking and patting and cooing over, so Father McMahon accepted Mrs. Nana’s offer to take me to her house and keep me there until suitable adoptive parents could be found.
Weeks, then months passed with Mrs. Nana telephoning Father McMahon, regularly, to detail the trials of nurturing such a pathetically sick infant. She convinced Father that I should not be returned to the Home as scheduled. I might infect the other children with my screaming, spitting up, and refusing to sleep.
Years later when I read those notes in my long-lost file, I smiled with gratitude at Mrs. Nana’s convincing lies. She’d shared the truth with me as early as I can remember—that upon arrival in her house, I coiled into sleep, tight as a rose bud. I grew from birth to toddler, bringing her more delight than she’d ever known. “You were such a little flower,” she told me once, “I almost named you Rosie.” She decided that “Honey” more appropriately fit my sweet, but peppery disposition. And she and I became inseparably attached. Fortunately, Father McMahon never tried to come between us. In fact, he died without ever updating my file. He kindly allowed me to disappear from the system into Mrs. Nana’s imaginative and loving world.
By the time I was three years old, I’d learned to set a proper table for tea–damask rose cups, embroidered napkins, warm cream, raisin scones, sweet biscuits, butter, jam, and the New York Times. My table manners were as highly polished as museum furniture. I could pour and pass, and tweeze sugar cubes with silver tongs as gracefully as the Queen’s cronies. “Extend your pinkie finger when you stir,” Mrs. Nana reminded me. “Butterflies need a place to land.”
I was five years old when the error of my “misplacement” was accidentally discovered. The Guardian Angel Home had been closed by the County, and clerks from the state had been sent to glean the files. My birth certificate, buried in the stacks, generated an all-out search. One of the retired cooks recalled Mrs. Nana having taken home a baby.
The case worker told the judge in the Pennsylvania Orphans Court that when she arrived at Mrs. Nana’s house, it looked as though I’d been kept like a doll. She wrote in her file: “The child was fresh-faced and freckled, crinoline dresses and patent leather Mary Jane’s. The child said, ‘Yes, thank you, please’ and ‘may I,’ and asked if I’d like tea.” In another column, she noted that I had not attended pre-school or Kindergarten. “The child asked did I know that all God’s creatures were created equal, and that love was forever. She recited the ‘Our Father’ and ‘Three Little Pigs.’”
The judge granted Mrs. Nana a series of visits. He said it would soothe my separation anxiety. This set Mrs. Nana howling and roaring, and the judge hammering his gavel.
My new parents, Myrna and Brill, had originally wanted a clutch of kids. Their plan was that once Brill retired from management at Whitman’s Chocolate, in Philadelphia, we’d all move back to Bethel, Delaware and work his family’s farm. When I was their only child (their biological baby boy, Ray Dean, came shortly after my arrival), we drove down to Bethel on weekends. The two of them with their deep Delawarean accents talked loudly over the noisy engine of their truck. Occasionally they’d shout to me in the backseat where I was crammed between boxes of Whitman Samplers for Brill’s mother, Granny Hattie, and empty, prickly crates that on the return trip would brim with peaches, tomatoes and green beans from Hattie’s roadside stand.
“Haunnie, how’s it back there? Yo’r awful quiet.”
Myrna complained that I was unresponsive. She’d been bending over backwards to reach me with an array of nicknames–“Kutchie,” “Stinkey,” “Boop, “Bibbie,” “Bip,” “Brat,” “Snippity-pie,” and finally “Miss Mouthy.” I held “Honey” in my heart.
One morning she was braiding my hair. Against my tugging, twisting and shouting, she was hurting me. “That’s it,” she yelled, “No more gettin’ away with murder. You’re gone t’ Catholic school.”
I didn’t know what that meant but it made me shiver.
Ordinarily, on the first day of school, Myrna would have walked me and probably prepared me better for my renaming, but she was in the late stages of birthing labor in the Nazareth Hospital on the other side of town. Brill followed her strict orders to spit shine my oxfords, fasten my uniform necktie, and hold my hand, tight, all the way. The hand holding was a first for father and me. My pretzel-stick fingers in his doughy palm freed me from the worry of approaching another new environment.
We passed the Guardian Angel Home, which had been re-opened as the Holy Innocents Youth Center. In front of the ranch-style structure was a row of swing sets splayed in a dusty patch. The swings had leather seats and long chains, the kind if you pumped hard in the upswing, would let you dip your toes into the sky.
“I’d like to swing there, someday,” I said.
“You oughten never want t’see that place again,” father said. That’s where Mrs. Nana got a hold ya.”
Hearing Mrs. Nana’s name brought on the missing feeling, the one that caused my rough crying and the wailing that sliced the inside of my throat, shredded my words and pin-pricked my lungs, airless.
“No crocodile tears,” father said. “Swallow hard. We all got pain ta bear.” He patted my back. “There’s nothin’ a little singin’ won’t cure,” he said, and he broke into the Kingston Trio’s, “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.”
I’d learned that crying and pleading wouldn’t bring back Mrs. Nana. It usually made things worse with either Myrna trying to rock me with her sweaty hands, or father unbuckling his belt to threaten the tears back inside me.
By the time father and I reached the schoolyard on the border of the old, Italian cemetery, I’d quickly absorbed his cheer, and the two of us were belting out the chorus:
“Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you’re bound to die.”
A young nun greeted us at the wrought-iron gates of the school. With the white box of her nun’s habit squeezing her head and framing her full-moon face, she looked like a living TV. Her matching plastic collar extended up and around her neck and forced her to bend and turn with a mechanistic stiffness. Yet, she moved gracefully and when she spoke it was soft like the sound inside a whelk. Her hands waved breezily, and her skin glowed pink like faded cherry blossoms. In my mind, she became Sister Cherry, and next to Mrs. Nana, I would cherish her most.
While I saw Sister Cherry everyday for the next six years, my court-approved time with Mrs. Nana decreased. At first, Mrs. Nana had been invited to the important functions in my life–Confirmation, first Communion, and first May procession to honor Mary, the Blessed Mother of Jesus. But when it was time for Mrs. Nana to leave, the phantom cutting in my throat would return. The sobbing would shift to a rattling in my chest, the hoarse coughing would simmer to breathlessness, and someone would unpeel me from around Mrs. Nana’s waist or ankles and drag me away where I’d drop into exhausted sleep.
“Children forget quick,” Myrna told Mrs. Nana, patting her out the front door.
In third grade, Sister Cherry invited me to the convent for lunch. She sliced tomatoes and spread mayonnaise on toast with salt and pepper. We carried the sandwiches to the sun porch and pulled cushioned wicker chairs to the piano stool which doubled as a table. Sister listened to my chatter. I said I couldn’t memorize “Lincoln, Blinken and Nod.” I had my own rhymes and my own version of the poem. She dabbed the toast crumbs with her pointer finger, the way Mrs. Nana had done when she was intent on listening. Sister hummed, agreeing and understanding.
(Apologies to Bob Dylan)
My brother Johnny’s in the basement mixing fermented chocolate syrup and dandelion juice. I’m on the pavement in front of our apartment thinking about how the government’s been tapping into my phone line ever since I thought it’d be funny to start a website for out-of-work terrorists. Some guy with a badge and a trench coat, coughing like he’s from the TB ward, and muttering about needing a pay off, tells me I’m a “person of interest.”
“You’re in serious trouble,” Mr Trench Coat said.
“What for? I didn’t do anything. I was just trying to have some fun.”
“Don’t matter what you did, kid. We’re watching that you don’t do it again.”
That’s when Maggie, the crazy homeless lady, comes fleet-footing down the street, her face full of black soot. She’s talking crazy about her garden and how her phone’s also being tapped.
“You don’t have a phone or a garden, Maggie,” I tell her.
Mr. Trench Coat says he wants to be her friend, but she says she’s got orders from the D.A. to bust out in early May. Then she dances off on tiptoes and warns me against taking “No Doz.”
“You sure got interesting friends,” Mr. Trench Coat says. “Better stay away and keep a clean nose.”
I say Maggie isn’t a friend and I don’t need to be taking advice from a man who wears plain clothes. “I don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”
Well, after that, time kind of passes. I get sick, get well. I try hard to make a buck writing a program in Braille for an Internet porn site, but you never know what’s gonna sell.
My landlord bars me from my apartment because I’m late with the rent check. We fight and I spend a night in jail. Things aren’t going well with my work. I even think of joining the army if I fail.
That’s when I start hanging around with users, abusers, six-time losers. I spend some time with a pretty girl, but I know she’s just looking for a new fool. All the while, Mr. Trench Coat’s voice keeps playing in my head like an old vinyl record stuck in an old vinyl groove.
Remi stands barefoot in his motel room and stares out into the nighttime world. His breath matches the rhythm of the surf as it finds its way to the shore, where shards of glass glow in the moonlight. Sand lifts up from the carpet and grits against the creases between his toes. The salt-scented breeze from the window calms him. This is the beginning, and he knows what he must do. On the bed the pistol he bought out of the trunk of a Lincoln lays waiting. With his eyes closed, his mind sways with the movement of the sea. When they open he can only think of tourists and baby names. The peace leaves him.
On the nightstand he lifts the phone’s receiver to his ear and allows its drone to lull his thoughts. When she finds her way into his room a ghost, he pushes her memory away and decides to go back to work. The envelopes are waiting.
By the nightstand he switches on the conk shell lamp which sits next to ring box he’s carried around so long its velvet has worn ragged. Restraining orders have fallen behind the nightstand. If he could explain himself he would tell you that this isn’t how it started. He’d tell you that you’ve caught him at a bad time— in between. The envelopes full of songs are waiting by his keyboard. The ocean has a heart too. He would explain that it started with her, that he can’t catch up.
Remi rests himself onto the bed, his fingers find the keys, and again he loses himself.
The Sanyo keyboard on his lap runs on D batteries, and is covered with Christmas stickers. Remi wrote his name on the back of it with a silver marker when he received it as a child. The keyboard was the first Christmas present he ever played with more than two weeks, and he hadn’t found a way to let go of it after all these years. When it was new it came with a pop rock songbook coded for stickers which he carefully glued on to each key, just the way the diagram in the instruction book illustrated. In his motel room he presses down the B, C, and D in rhythm, playing from page one of the songbook which is in tatters. The electronic notes of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” break the silence, and the telephone’s receiver remains off the hook.
previously published in Cafe Review (Spring 2004) Clumsy bones, sweet stumbled heart, wail your crack-brained tears, hunt me in the dark, shake me blue, crush me in your wire fingers, kiss my jagged mouth, open me wide, shove heartbreak through my hundred stubborn veins, play me for a fool, I’m so, [...]
We smoke the roach you sweet-talked
crabby Lauren into parting with,
you drop ash in my hair, on the wall Joe Strummer
smashes a guitar, slow-hand Chaucer nudges my lips—
. . . than longen folk to goon . . .
We’re not exactly tripping any more, but streetlights
still flash their porous rainbows, the soft windows tremble and sigh,
and when you shake Revolver onto the turntable,
“She Said She Said” fattens the night air like a tulip.
. . . the tendre croppes, the yonge sonne . . .
Already I’m afraid to leave you, already I’m lonely.
Eye-jangled and forlorn, I watch you rattle cellophane,
tear open a pack of Marlboros, cough and strike a match,
suck up the fumes of one more cigarette.
. . . Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth . . .
The tulip sways. She bows low, she offers me her red throat.
. . . so priketh him nature in hir corages . . .
What hurt, what hunger do I dread?
The radio is tuned to some oldies station
when a siren begins to wail outside, spinning lights
around the walls like lazy butterflies on
the diminished gravity of the moon.
I was ten or twelve or maybe eight
when they put a man on the moon,
watching television in the living room
with my mom and dad, leaning up against
the coffee table or else sitting back
against the old blue sofa with ice cream stains,
believing back then that
all things were possible.
I used to pray, “Oh Lord, don’t let them drop that
bomb, don’t let them send me to fight, and
please make that little girl with the
ponytails and the braces mine.”
I can’t remember her name now –
she lived down the street–
and sitting next to my mother’s hospital bed
on the last night of her life,
I couldn’t remember what it was
I ever feared about the bomb.
“Galveston oh Galveston
I am so afraid of dying.”
I’ll never go home again,
I’ll never wake up
in this world again, she thought.
But when it was over
I went home, like a character
in a sappy song that never used
to move me,
and I went to sleep
with the radio on
and the lights off,
waiting for my time to arrive.
Between Adam’s “Yo, bros” and Sooz’s GPS,
somehow we manage to roll from the Trash Bar
in Brooklyn to the open-windowed 35th floor
of Manhattan—“Man, Vic, Vic, Vic. Check out
the falling stars.”
“On the expressway, Sammy?”
From that height, the narrow road does indeed
look God-made, tiny headlights sparkling; and orange,
splashing off blue skyscrapers, swirls purple across
Roger’s sleeping cheeks, spotlights the show in here:
tip-toeing in black hightops, motorcycle boots powering down.
Post-dawn, the wake-up caller strokes his streaked hair:
“So, hey, anybody grab our pay?” Matt’s black hair had lain down
for the night, but now it perks up, along with nipple rings,
from a velvet-pillow nest. Heavy black and silver belts uncoil
from their partners on the glass tabletop, leather and mesh
fingerless gloves, visored, spiked, spider-webbed cap,
their owner suddenly awake among leopard-print tassles
and his buddy’s motionless, spring-curled head.
The synchrony of snores has stopped, one musician at a time
growling at daylight. Sammy stands rubbing his thigh,
purple from the beat, beat, beat of last night’s crescent tambourine.
Headlines moulder behind plexiglass.
Charging clouds crash.
Cogs break into dust—
but by some profane magic
pinstriped shamans place calking guns
into willing hands
of guys like Chuck and Phil who shoot
Funny Foam into all the cracks,
until all is well.
At the lunch counter three guys who see
no reason to try
eat their sandwiches with gusto.
Three other guys, skipping lunch, have time
to half-wonder what would happen
if they slowed down just a little.
These clouds converge.
On the highway
no one has the sense
to slow down.
Listening to Miles
at the Baby Bar,
savoring a stout
from Boundary Bay;
I could stay,
could spend the evening
listening to Miles.
But the dogs wait,
wanting a walk,
and the burritos
I could stay with Miles
and the stout.
But besides the dogs
There is, of course, the wife—
and the cat, that blessed cat,
don’t get me started
on the cat,
that once-feral cat,
who abides only me
and no other
and has not been seen
and I have not yet found
since the snowplow passed,
three days back.
Seeds slide up my windshield and over
the car—scattered arpeggios.
I’ve lost an earring, a misshapen pearl,
expensive gift from a friend.
Already I’ve searched the floor
of the car and crawled down two sidewalks.
In Leipzig, Bach supervised boys and
brought his pen to page after page
of beautiful paper. Back in a restaurant,
I pull out my chair and find nothing.
For more than six years Bach wrote a cantata
every week, copied it out, led the choir.
Pages of his orderly library, sold for scrap
when he died, turned into wrapping
for cheese and meat and fragile trees,
swathed against cold all winter.
One hundred forty cantatas turned into dirt.
People step into sunlight and take off
their jackets. Across the street a building is
down: piles of lumber and gravel.