They’re all dead now, every single one of them. I was a self-conscious teenager, who rolled her hair in pink curlers every night. And what gorgeous hair I had back then, not thin and spindly and white as it is today. Dad asked if we wanted to visit our cousin Donny Garber at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.
“Yes!” I called from my upstairs bedroom, where I lay on my white bedspread, reading a library book from the Bertram Woods Library. The library is still there. My sister Donna came into my room. She had bouncy brown hair from the rollers she put in her hair every night.
“It would probably be boring,” she said.
“Why don’t you come? We could have a ‘doozy.’” I suggested.
“Nah, I’ll get together with my friends,” she said.
Why did Donna have so many friends and I had only one or two? We’re both still alive now. One of her friends died on a roof top while she was getting a sun tan. Cause of death: a heroin overdose.
Mom always stayed home. Her mother, Gramma Lily, lived with us, and insisted that my mother keep a clean house. Mom had special knee pads – like hockey players wear – to scrub the kitchen floor. We did have a maid – Gloria – who I was insatiably curious about. A Black woman. I wondered how Black people lived. I knew they were poor, but didn’t know why.
Mom made sure we had plenty to eat before we left. Succulent lamb chops, mashed potatoes, which, for some reason, made me drowsy, La Sueur Peas, from a can, and brownies, for dessert.
I yawned. The mashed potatoes.
We Greenwolds always had brand-new cars. I’m guessing we had our pink Mercury station wagon. It was huge when all the seats were put down. I got to sit up front since Mom wasn’t there. Immediately, Dad lit a cigarette. His smoking career began at age eight, and ended at 42, when on Yom Kippur, he quit. Cold turkey.
Surreptitiously, I cranked open my window a tiny crack.
Oh, he died anyway of lung cancer which metastasized to his brain. Fifty-nine.
A skyscraper growing in his brain.
Case Western Reserve was half an hour away. Throughout the drive, I’d cough into a piece of tattered Kleenex. Second-hand smoke. Since I ain’t dead yet, I dunno if I’ll die from cancer or not. A variety of other candidates wait in the wings.
The scenery was fascinating. We drove through the impoverished parts of Cleveland. A funeral parlor “Kirk and Nice” – Black men congregating on street corners, some in undershirts, others in their church finery – Church’s Fried Chicken – boarded-up gas stations – Kentucky Fried Chicken with the Colonel smiling broadly, seemingly innocent of the unhealthy diets that would kill Black people – huge billboards – one mentioned a dentist you could pay on the installment plan – another mentioned “The Settlement Music School,” where we’d hold our piano recitals.
Clutching my Kleenex, I coughed again. Dad couldn’t hear me above the radio. The program was quite clever. The narrator, with a smooth voice like Earl Nightingale’s, pretended we were at a ball room.
“Coming out onto the dance floor now,” the voice said, “is none other than Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.” He paused for effect. What he didn’t say was that Fred Astaire was half-Jewish, but his mother converted to Roman Catholicism. Another Gustav Mahler, who became a Christian.
Dad never lost a moment in praising the Jews. George Jessel, Ernie Kovacs, Hank Greenberg, of the Cleveland Indians – “Hammerin’ Hank” - Maury Salzman, a Cleveland philanthropist.
The GPS – Global Positioning System – was not in wide use in the ‘sixties, but Dad seemed to know how to get everywhere.
And there he was: Donny Garber - Donald Israel Garber, PhD - standing outside his school, bald head glimmering in the light.
Dad grabbed his movie camera and panned slowly. Every one in the family was used to Dad and his movie camera.
“Pain in the neck,” I thought.
I didn’t learn to curse until I got to Goddard College in Plainfield, VT.
Donny led the way to his work area. I stared at the man, since I, well, lusted after him. His smarts, for sure, but there was something else. A hidden knowledge he seemed to possess, as if he knew me and what I was all about. Even if I myself had no idea.
Revolving wheels, like on tape recorders, are what I remember. Those and sneak peaks at Donny, who still lived at home. His mother, Evelyn, was imbued with a sparkling personality. Their home was a showcase of antiques. Not my taste. What I loved were movie-star homes I would look at in movie magazines I’d buy at Gray’s Drug Store – Photoplay or Modern Screen. I hid them from my family in the bottom drawer of my dresser.
Evelyn Garber, Donny’s mom, was banished from Sterling Lindner Davis, Halle’s and Higbee’s department stores. Everything she bought, she returned. Obsessions. Good to have if you’re a scientist.
Finally, “Don-Coo” as his mother called him, took a bride.
Liz. Short for Elizabeth. Both were scientists. And childless, which we believed was tantamount to a sin.
Late in life, Donny got leukemia. Leukemia, for chrissakes. Oh, my aching heart. He rallied. But then failed. And died. Do we know when we are dying?
My mother, in her nineties, was devastated. Dad, remember, had died of cancer at 59.
Liz is still alive.
She hasn’t a clue who she is.
She is living with relatives in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Alzheimer’s is the deadbeat victor.
MAY I HAVE YOUR VOTE?
During the early days of my failed marriage, I went to the polls in Houston, Texas, and pushed the button for George McGovern, the earnest man with the smiling false teeth.
I sobbed when he lost.
Of course, I was an emotional girl back then, wearing an invisible black veil of mourning for marrying the wrong man. There was never anything to talk about. We’d hit the sack each night on those lovely lavender-striped sheets, keep our backs a few inches apart and somehow end up twined together in the morning.
Whoever awoke first, licked their dry mouth, checked the digital clock and softly eased out of bed so as not to awake the sleeping monster.
The last words I said to him before I went back home to Pennsylvania were, “Keep the Nissan and take up painting again.”
Thirty years later I found myself in the tiny cramped office of Pennsylvania State Congresswoman Allyson Y. Schwartz. I looked forward to meeting this tough but soft-spoken woman who let her hair grow gray and stood with her arms crossed in the photographs.
She never showed up, but I met Nate and Barbara and Katy and basically the whole crew who were coordinating the 2008 election campaign of the first black man to run for president of the United States.
“Canvass” was a word I didn’t know how to spell and now they wanted me to canvass. I would do anything for this black man, including buy a $20 badly designed T-shirt with his face grinning on my chest. His brilliance dazzled me and I was positively in love with that smiling wife of his, with her straightened hair and sexy ways.
As usual, I pictured us being best friends
“Michelle,” I’d say to her. “It’s my turn to drive today. Where to? The Barnes is having a lecture on Renoir and those curvaceous models of his.”
“Look, Marsha,” she’d tell me. “I have nothing against fat white girls in pinafores, but I’d rather go kayaking on the Delaware.”
Canvassing, that strange word. The Team paired me with a woman who looked as if she could be in a Picasso painting and even one of his lovers, until she opened her mouth. Betty had black flyaway hair that spread out from her oval-shaped head in curlicue black tresses, sort of like Marie Antoinette, her head still attached.
Betty and I filled our arms with manila folders holding sheets of potential voters, their names, phone numbers, No. 2 pencils with pink erasers that left horrible splotches on the page. They wished us Godspeed, as we drove out to - of all places - a nursing home in Elkins Park, PA.
I waived the right to take my car by lying I was low on gas. In truth, I could not keep more than two hubcaps on at a time. The car was an embarrassment, as were my second-hand clothes, my unkempt hair, and my refusal to pay attention to myself. People liked me anyway. I got by with my great personality. Charm, you might call it.
The silence in Betty’s car was absolute.
“Those your grandkids?” I asked, looking at the dashboard which contained posed shots of perfect little beings. I couldn’t care less.
“Help me out,” she said as she drove, slower and slower. “Where the hell is this nursing home?”
“You said you knew,” I almost shouted back at her. “Now we’re lost and have no idea where we are. Where the hell is the address?”
I grabbed the sheet of paper from her lap and stared at the directions.
“You’ve overshot the mark, dammit!” I said. “If there’s one thing I hate it’s someone who pretends they know everything.”
Rolling Hill Hospital, a huge brick building filled with sick or dying people was off on our right.
After passing Rizzo’s Pizza Parlor that one of my loser boyfriends took me to, a college professor who had stacks of porn magazines by the side of his bed, I pointed to a white sign that read “Rolling Hill Nursing Home.”
She parked and we entered. The plan was to give a good Obama pep talk to all the people on our list. Their names were clearly printed out with those square-ish letters from the computer. You read the column as it marched across the page, you know, party of affiliation, date they last voted, DOB and even phone number. We could’ve had phone duty but we each wanted to be part of the “Vote Yes for Change Campaign” and meet voters face to face.
The home was equipped with a lovely blue patterned carpet as we walked in, a piano in the lobby, and a counter behind which no one sat.
The smell of lunch attracted us.
“We should wait here until someone comes,” said Betty.
“Well, you can wait here,” I said. “But, me, I’m gonna find the voters.”
I was ravenous to begin.
Old people interested me. They were twisted caricatures of what they used to be. The faces on the women were like puffy croissants but not half so tasty. Men had those horrid big brown age spots in odd places on their face, which they should simply, I thought, scrape off with an X-Acto blade. You see, I never felt comfortable with old people. But I took this as a challenge to see if I could get over my distaste.
The first thing I noticed after I broke away from Betty was the smell of the place. I don’t have to tell you what it smelled like. Unemptied Depends. In the old days when people didn’t shower, they would douse themselves with perfume. Why didn’t Rolling Hill do the same?
I was on the stairs when I heard Betty’s high-heels clopping behind me.
“Nothing to do, so I guess I’ll come with you. Where should we start?”
We were now on the second floor. A nurse in one of those snappy overblouses that look like a well-worn maternity frock snapped, “And what do you think you’re doing in my nursing home?”
“Oh, we’re just canvassing for Obama,” I chirped.
“Did you get permission to come up here?”
Betty started to say something, but I quickly said, “Of course we did. We’re just going to peek in the rooms and see who’s in there. It’s our job. Allyson Schwartz, the State Congresswoman sent us.”
The nurse, clipboard in hand, nodded and disappeared down the hallway.
There are only two times in my life I’ve felt really important. One was today, canvassing for Obama. The other was in a supermarket when a young man flopped on the floor in the juice aisle and took a seizure.
I knelt down and cushioned his head with my hands.
"You are welcome, sir," I thought.
With Betty in tow, I entered a huge room that was making all sorts of noises, from both machines and human beings. Where was I? How had I gotten here? How might I leave? Was I on an alien ship with Spock and crew slumbering to slow their beating hearts to get back to Planet Earth?
“Oh, for chrissakes,” said Betty. “Look what you’ve done. Look where you’ve taken us.” Her arms were flailing.
“You’re crazy. I’m getting out of here," she said.
“Don’t drive off without me. I’ll be down in a minute,” I said, looking down on the bed at was once a woman but now resembled an inflatable still-breathing corpse with cactus-like stubble growing over her face.
And you know what I actually thought when I saw her? Well, two things. “This could be me,” was the first. And the second was, “She once made love and had fine spongy breasts.”
I roamed along the long room, taking my time to look at each living carcass, none of them awake. I sat down on a bed and looked at the Italian name of a woman. I lay my hand on her arm, just below where the bruise was where the intravenous went in. I squeezed a tiny bit and she awoke. Or, I should say, her eyes opened. But was she awake? Was she cognizant? Was she a sentient being?
“Mary?” I said, staring into her blurry gray-green eyes and open mouth. “I’m here to tell you about Barack Obama. Do you know who he is?”
Her eyes blinked. I had practiced my speech back at headquarters and I recited it now on the side of the bed to Mary Italian last-name. She snored through my presentation. I was confused. Was she snoring or was she walking her way into death? And how long would it take? And did anyone care?
Can’t say that I did. Mostly, I felt sorry for myself, a witness to this human decay, stench and degradation.
A handsome man who looked like an orchestra conductor walked into the room. The stethoscope gleamed in the light of the ever-present fluorescents on the ceiling. On second thought, he was not so handsome at all. He had a washed-out look, a sadness in his eyes.
“Visiting?” he asked.
“Sort of,” I said. “I’m making new friends. Canvassing for Barack Obama, our first black president.”
“Seems like a smart man,” he said. “Give me your pitch,” he said staring at my grey turtleneck from Impact Thrift Store.
He listened to me and nodded his head.
“Would you let me listen to my heart?” I asked him. He seemed pleasant enough and I wanted to give him a break from all these dying chickens.
He put the stethoscope around my ears and placed the shiny silver disc in my hand.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
“Hey, I’m still alive,” I said. “What I imagine to be a strong steady beat.”
“You bet,” he said, moving down the rows to study the remains of what once were people in the Rolling Hill Nursing Home.
Betty was sitting with her legs kicking in the lobby with that glamorous rack of untrained curls radiating the only joy in the place.
“Ready?” I said.
I refused to apologize as we walked to her shiny white car whose battery turned nicely as we headed back to the office.
Obama won and I ran out to buy a copy of the New York Times with the headlines reading "Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls."
I keep it in the bottom of my underwear drawer, where it gets frailer with every passing day.
The Death of Judy Garland
Tokeli is a multi dimensional artist and writer, working in a variety of media, including painting, music composition, theatre, and essay writing. Tokeli is a unique artist because of a traumatic accident and subsequent out-of-body experience, which shifted the focus of her artwork towards consciousness.
Tokeli has a theatre major and philosophy minor from UCSD (undergrad) and Tufts University (Masters). She also teaches meditation and metaphysics in small groups, and works as a consciousness speaker/trainer.
The Doing and the Being
Though he was indoors, he felt like wispy clouds were moving over his head. It was the kind of feeling that would come and go quickly, like air—as if he were catching a waft of his ex-wife Irena’s scent, as she walked from one room to the next, wet and freshly showered. Elusive, confusing, flowery. It was like being close to an idea that was above his intellectual pay grade. He contemplated only certain elements of the concept, but not its whole. He couldn’t even comprehend his own belief system. The writer was intelligent, well-educated, and “really into self-reflection.” Why wasn’t he evolved enough to know what this feeling was? He knew he was being awfully dualistic in his thinking, black and white you know, but he couldn’t actually SEE the other way, so he couldn’t define it and knew this meant he would take no action at all. Was success possible without angst?
The writer drank the last of his cold, bitter coffee and wrestled with whether or not to exchange the current pen which was running out of ink for a new one…it was so early in the day. Pens can be expensive, but computers were for transcribing for publishers and editing, not for real writing. Writing was best done with a black inky pen on paper, bold and thick, leaving smudges on the fingers.
The writer noted the sciatic pain in his right rump on the hard seat. With one last glance at the crowd of twenty-something’s (who seemed to choose to be absolutely running after the most plastic life possible—what a waste!), he knew the day would be unfruitful. He was sluggish and grumpy, his usual countenance. He picked up his notebook and left the activity of the coffee bar, exchanging its smells of espresso and hipster cologne for the stale air of his decade-old Volvo.
The writer certainly did not plan on going home to an empty apartment, but he had no other destination in mind. The air was warming in the morning light. He rolled down the window exactly four inches and purposely allowed the compressed air to tug on his eardrums before opening up the sunroof. He turned off the radio to listen to the wind and empty his mind. At this point, Time decided to slow down. There were no other sounds…other than the rushing.
Driving past his own neighborhood in a kind of autopilot stupor, up a long stretch of road, the writer stopped recognizing the scenery. Houses turned to trees and small boulders alongside the gravel pavement. In front of him, the long road curved up a straight stretch and then, as the crow flies, into the horizon. Schedules were not important to the writer today. No one was waiting for him. He was not a part of the world anymore, not really, not in so many connections. Not since the divorce. Not since she had given up on him.
As he drove the car further away from what he knew and towards his line of sight, he reached the crest of a hill. He looked down upon a new world with new eyes. He saw a valley of unrecognizable charm. The air seemed to shift. The light was made golden, as though sunset had decided to come before noon. The unfamiliar valley below was speckled with many houses of different sizes, colors and shapes. Each house had a large yard and there was a center building, large and circular, in the middle of the village. Pausing at the crest of the hill only briefly, the writer drove down a winding narrow road towards the village with both a lack of curiosity and yet a healthy dose of fixation, as if his hands were only resting on the steering wheel, his foot gently laying upon the gas pedal. As if the car had decided to take him there and the writer had no further part in its decision-making.
This was not the golden hour which photographers speak of, but it felt like it. The writer found himself in the middle of unfamiliar territory. Maybe it was the foreignness of the setting, but he couldn’t help but imagine that the colors on this side of the hill were different somehow…unique. The yellows of light bouncing off everything were that much cheerier. The green of the grass was almost Technicolor. The red of a tricycle on a front lawn like a maraschino cherry. The soft peach hue of pleasantness and nostalgia could be felt all around. There was a shimmering quality to everything. The writer didn’t know how this could possibly be, but the magic of the colors seemed to influence the sound as well. Were those tiny tinkling bells in the distance? Or was that women singing? Both? And yet, underneath, there was perhaps a purer silence than he had remembered since childhood…like a farm at night, far away from the buzz of town. It was the sound of stillness. Here, everything vibrated with stillness.
The facades of the little houses felt like coming home to a place he had never known…magical, like a paradise, but not a dramatic tropical island or a fancy castle on a hill…just a simple community of yesteryear, or was this the distant future? The house styles strangely mirrored his own neighborhood. He decided that he hadn’t jumped in time. No, this was so different and yet entirely ordinary. He had stumbled upon another dimension, maybe. Yes, that’s what it is, he thought, same era, different dimension. That was what he would’ve liked to believe, whether it was true or not. It’s something writers do, he self-reflected.
The Volvo had slowed to a crawl. The writer parked and started walking. He turned a corner to face the opening of the large circular arena. A crowd was entering through the arena’s gates. There was no ticket-taker, (maybe it was free), so he followed. A ceremony was underway inside and there were thousands in the stands. This village was obviously more populated than he had figured. People of every size, shape, color, and age cheered in waves of song and praise as their brightly colored clothing fluttered from the stadium stands. There was an electric charge of excitement in the air with smiles everywhere. Was this a tournament or game? People kept turning and smiling at each other, as though a secret joy filled the arena. Down below, a man and two women stood on a platform at the center of the stadium field, apparently receiving a medal from a panel of distinguished looking older folks. As each award was given, a great cheer arose from the stands. There was music playing in elation at each announcement. The writer kept bumping into dancing spectators, who would turn and laughingly cry “Isn’t it wonderful?! Ha ha! We’re so lucky!” In return, the writer smiled as wide and politely as he could muster, as if to say he was certainly happy they were happy but didn’t know how that affected him.
There were machines present on the field, technology he didn’t recognize. They were inventions of some sort, but the man didn’t understand. Obviously, the people on the podium were receiving awards for their innovations. He asked an old man to his left, who explained that these were just a few of the many contributions which had been made recently in the fields of science, biotech, and manufacturing and that these inventors and their companies were all being honored. The old man pointed to groups of scientists on the sidelines of the award ceremony, all grinning with pride and joy at their creations, waving to the people above. It was hard to imagine that the whole town had showed up for an industry award ceremony. Why would they be so excited? What did it have to do with them? Did they all work at the same place? The writer asked the old man about it, but the old man looked at him as though it was incomprehensible that the writer did not understand.
“It’s ALL of us who benefit from this, don’t you see? We did it together, in a way. Of course, I’m no scientist. I wasn’t in any lab or anything, nothing like that. But we’re all together, it’s for all of us. We’re all growing, expanding! As a whole,” the man stammered, bewildered at the writer’s confusion. “The world is getting so much better, isn’t it? It’s exciting!”
“I guess,” said the writer, “but what’s going on here? I don’t get it. Who’s giving the award? Is there money or a grant or something?”
The old man chuckled, “I know, it’s like we’re all a bunch of crazy kids today, aren’t we? So delighted to be making this kind of progress, this kind of success.” The old man winked at the writer. “It’s inspiring!” He turned to face the festivities on the field below them.
“…Uh, well sure, I guess … I mean, I hear ya. I’d like to get an award too, but—“
“—Oh no,” the old man corrected him, “that’s not necessary. Whether I get an award or not, I don’t care about all that. I haven’t done anything like this for years. What I mean is we’re really doing something here! … Oh for heaven’s sake! I’ve forgotten myself again. Getting old! Okay, right! You’re new, so you don’t understand! ... Okay, okay. Well, so you see, it’s like this: We’re sharing, not comparing. This is a kind of cooperating, contributing to the Whole. All of our lives are going to improve because of these companies’ altruism, their offerings to the Whole. It’s the best kind of action to be taken in the world.”
“So they’re like donating this stuff to the city?”
“—No…but everyone will benefit—“
Anxiously, the writer scratched his head, interrupting: “—Do you share in the profits or something?”
“No,” the old man answered. The writer was confused again, as to how this group of inventions benefitted the old man and asked if he had a son who worked for one of the companies or something. The old man shook his head no again, smiling. “I don’t get it. Why are you here?”
“Because we did it, silly! We did it!” the old man howled and whooped and hollered. Others nearby mimicked him good-naturedly. They all had a good laugh; the writer was perplexed and his frustration was mounting. He wanted to pin down the old man and torture him until he got some real answers. He suddenly HAD to know what was going on here! “But you didn’t do it, you said. They did it. … So, what? You were just in the neighborhood and thought you’d stop by for the show? See if there was an open bar?” The old man laughed again, then grew serious. He looked at the writer, paused, then shook his head and walked away.
The writer walked up the stadium aisles to another section of seating, looking into faces. There had to be an explanation somewhere. He had always been good at people-watching, it was the meat and potatoes of the writer’s craft, human observation. The story was one of something akin to national pride. These people were genuinely happy for the successes of these frontrunners, without any jealousy. It was not a zero-sum game. They weren’t even bored sitting here watching the show. In fact, they couldn’t stop smiling. It wasn’t fake or some kind of glassy-eyed cult brainwashing. It was real joy, pride, collectively inspired. He started to think there must’ve been a massive DNA upgrade somewhere on his travels. The people were calmer and yet more joyful than he could fathom. This couldn’t be genuine. It had to be an act.
As the writer walked the aisles of the massive stadium of blissful citizens, he found himself eavesdropping on conversations. They spoke slowly, communicating purposefully and compassionately.
My God! It seemed that here, they had such high energy for each endeavor, the smiling and the cheering, as though the whole town was filled with joy like Santa’s elves who couldn’t stop giggling while they worked. All industry, inventions, business models, most every endeavor one could think of really, becomes motivated by a new purpose, a better way.
The writer remembered driving into town. He had seen shops and restaurants like any other town. The time period looked roughly the same. Here seemed a bit more quaint, perhaps, but nothing particularly special. No, it was more like a feeling than something to see. It was pervasive. It was in the air. A sensation washed over the writer’s countenance, misting him like a cool breeze on a scorched summer day. It was like the pleasant shuddering of walking through a ghost. A vibration. Electricity? A tingling sensation rose up from the ground and through his knees, thighs and pelvis. He had experienced this feeling at times in his past, especially as a young boy, aware of its creepy sensuality, its alien pleasantness. The writer had learned to just go with it. He let the stirring ride up and down his spine until it subsided.
The writer found himself standing still. He wasn’t walking anymore; he was focused on thinking, expanding his perception to include a new paradigm. Exhausted, he had to sit down with it, but the stadium was full of sound. He walked out through the arena ramp onto the sidewalk. He rested in contemplation on a public bench by a narrow river running the edge of town. The scene was beautiful in front of him, but it was the looks on the faces of those people which ran over and over through his mind—so much wisdom and generosity, so much superior intelligence. It was the eyes. Did he know humans with comparable benevolence? His writer friends were cads. They drank and smoked and cussed each other out, disguising bile as witticism. They asked themselves: when do I get mine? Where was the enmity, the intrigue, the prejudice? How could there be competition without tribalism? What was this strange ubiquitous harmony composed of? Where the writer came from, there were winners and there were losers. There were far more losers than winners, of course, like the poor. And the winners were winners in their domination over the losers in the social hierarchy. Here, however, there was really no pyramid at all.
How long had he been driving anyway? The strange thought of not knowing where he was right now paralyzed the writer like an opioid, lulling him into a hush. Was he still thinking or was he meditating now?
Suddenly, the old man he had spoken to in the stadium was sitting by the writer’s side, smiling munificently. “Ambition looks and feels different here, son. So does success,” he said.
A wave of tingling rose again on the writer’s back. Slumping down onto the bench with a thump, was the smiling octogenarian. “Ah, my old bones,” chuckled the old man. He picked up there conversation as though there had been no lull. “So! Here is what it is: Those bright stars among us, the winners of races, the success stories, the charmed, the elite, the wealthy, the talented, the famous, the Champions, the high rollers, all those who have made it to the top of their hills – they raise the rest of us up with them! We’re together, you see. It’s all…one thing. We enjoy their successes as our own. No resentment. With their help, we’ve already won.” The writer stared at the old man in silence. The old man seemed like he really wanted the writer to fully understand. It was important to him. He was thoughtful about his words. “They’re with us, a part of us. We don’t feel smaller because of them; we feel bigger and better. Their light shines brightest on those around them.”
“It’s not just a platitude,” the writer said incredulously. “This isn’t the Stepford dystopia.”
The old man guffawed, choking on his own snigger. “No, it’s real. And it’s easy!”
“—Bullshit,” interrupted the writer.
“I know it seems so from your perspective, son, but it’s just a tiny shift in consciousness to get here to where I am… to where we are,” said the old man.
The writer began to feel uneasy, agitated. It was all too confusing. He feared he would never understand. “Humans are notoriously lazy about changing their thinking. And besides, scum always rises to the top of the pond.”
The old man looked off into the distance and the writer thought he was going to say something profound, but instead he rose, turned, and walked away down the street.
“Hey,” called out the writer to the old man, getting up, “wait a minute! I just—I mean, hey!” The writer faced the river, then turned to the road, but the old man was gone. The writer ran in his direction, towards the village houses. He could hear the faint sound of bells ringing in the distance. The air was cooling as the afternoon warned of rain. There were tiny streams of smoke rising from chimneys. No sign of the old codger.
At this point, Time stopped again. The writer felt as though he had been walking all day. He slowed his run to nearly a crawl, looking around him. Toys on the front lawn. Modest houses. Nothing uniform. It was not plastic or phony. He had seen the massive party in the stadium, the jubilant dancing and singing, cheering and horseplay. The whole town celebrated. This was no Eden, and they were not placid, naked slackers. Nobody was sitting beside a lagoon feeding grapes to a blond Adonis. These people were busy. They worked. They created. They partied. They competed for awards and celebrated successes. But there was another side—a tranquil solemnity, as though a balance was at play in which the inhabitants of this dimension understood the duality of their humanness—a Yin-Yang equilibrium.
He peeked into the window of a modest, salmon-colored house and saw a woman sitting with her hands in her lap, eyes closed, a peaceful countenance on her middle aged face. She was sitting on a pillow on the floor, her face lit by the orange glow of a fireplace. Was this a cult of some kind? Were they aliens? Witches? Buddhists? Is it like communism or socialism? Is that it— the writer inwardly mused.
“—No, definitely not!” the writer heard a chuckle. “We just love each other this much,” said the old man. The writer jumped. He found himself in front of the old man’s home where he was gardening … moving, gliding through rows of vegetables, elegant as a Tai Chi master. “We’re as excited by loving Us as much as we are excited about learning to love ourselves, you see. It’s quite possible to have both. You needn’t drop out of society to do it.”
The writer found himself without words. Gently, the old man said in the writer’s head. Just picture it first…in your mind. The writer remained soundless, unable to move. The old man was speaking telepathically. Words were no longer necessary, but the writer didn’t care because he suddenly found himself so curious for answers. There were too many potential problems with this concept. He saw it, but he didn’t believe it. It was too hopeful. It was like all of these collectively evolved souls had finally come to the same conclusion: this works better.
To anyone outside of them, the two men would have looked like statues, standing there staring at each other, not speaking. It was almost too much to bear. The writer’s frustration was mounting and he felt his brain would crack. He felt out of body, as if he was standing outside of his own comprehension. There was a sage in front of him and he was generously trying show the writer something important, but the writer wanted to run, to fly away home, to forget he ever came here. He didn’t belong, he wasn’t good enough. He was afraid to stay and terrified to leave, but he was suddenly aware of how vital this download was to receive. He took a massive breath deep into his lungs and tried to work it out in his head.
The other side of Doing is Being. Like a penny turned upside down to reveal its other side, he said to himself. Being must be equally essential to the paradigm.
Yes, the old man intuited subjectively. The writer felt very close to it now, like standing on a ledge with his toes curled over the edge. Doing is action. Being is stillness.
More silence fell between them; then the old man nodded and spoke aloud. “Stillness is a foreign concept these days of being busy for busyness’ sake. I bet you can’t really even picture what inner self-reflection looks like, but it’s the only way to figure stuff out.” The old man smiled mildly. “It doesn’t necessarily look like those meditating women you saw in the window, because everyone figures it out in their own fashion. It’s what some people call the Path. Each version is different. It could be meditating, it could be gardening! It is lived and understood in private. Simply to be on it, that’s the way.”
“It’s a choice,” the writer heard himself say, startled by the sound of his own voice. He nodded sheepishly at the beaming old man whose outline was bathed in sunlight. The tingling returned, the ringing of the bells in the distance, a long forgotten sound from his childhood. The writer was suddenly very happy to be standing here talking to this senior citizen.
Black wingspans of the crows crossed over his line of sight. The writer looked down at the old man’s blue overalls and the old man looked down at his mucking boots. They were quiet again. The old man picked a weed, returning it to the compost bucket beside him. In this moment, the writer did not know what to do or say, though he was intensely curious. He was like a cloud hovering far over his own being. A picture was forming in his head. As the old man returned to pruning his garden, the writer thought about a gardener’s relationship to his garden, as a man’s Path teaches him of the Self: This garden is his own. He tends it for himself, and he will consume its fruits. He moves with slow grace. With time and practice, he will see variety. He will benefit from this thing which he has chosen to do. Just as a man in self-reflection is utterly alone, no one is coming to tend this garden for him. He may seek counsel from a master gardener, or do research by reading a book, but this is his responsibility, his way. All of these gardens look a little bit dissimilar. How a man fertilizes his garden, whether he talks to his plants or not—nobody and nothing can tell him how he does it or why.
“The Being of the Path is also the Doing of it. That’s…the knowing?” the writer asked the gentleman gardener.
Now you’re beginning, the old man said without words, whispering inside of him. Crows and vibrations on the skin. Crows cawing above and tingling chicken skin below. The garden becomes the man. This is the wisdom of self-reflection. Not time spent in the pursuit of shameless narcissism, voracious greed. Takes time and humility. … Stillness. He smiled and the writer saw such twinkling in the old man’s eyes that it made him want to do something he hadn’t done since he was a child…to cry. He found that he did not have the strength to let himself go, to let his tears flow. He looked down at the black pavement. When he looked up, the old man was gone. He had gone into his front door. The writer knew he would never see the man again and there was nothing to do but walk towards his car. He returned to the road and drove away from the setting sun…towards home.
It was Mom. A mass of maligned travelers knotted around the belt blocking access to the skybridge as he stood and scanned the terminal to assess progress towards departure. Out past the windows, red and green lights flashed against the tarmac, each wing-tipping pair slightly out of sync with every other. He sat down again before picking up.
“Micah, are you in the middle of something? I won’t keep you long.”
Mom’s first two lines were always the same, followed by a pause as she gathered her wind to sail the conversation forward. Today she had a very important message that she hoped didn’t upset Micah on his way to Chicago.
“Pat Sturbridge has died.”
Micah squinted his mind’s eye as a middle-aged man, his youth pastor, came into focus.
“Yes. Craig Bridge. I hope that doesn’t upset you.”
Micah checked his emotions the way his therapist had taught him, and found that he wasn’t upset. An airline employee briefly stepped to one of the kiosk computers. Micah stood again to see what she would do.
“I’m so sorry to tell you like this,” said Mom. “It’s awful, but he had a heart attack while he was swimming.”
It did sound awful, he gave her that.
“I just found out,” she said. Micah listened while she traced the lines of communication through names still familiar from their time in the church.
For as long as he could remember, Micah had found it helpful to organize his perceptions of everyone he met on a specific point or story around which the rest of their person could be wound. For Pastor Craig, that was a sermon delivered to Micah and the rest of the youth group when Micah was in sixth or seventh grade.
“Remember the story about the traffic sign?” Micah asked.
He’d first realized what he was doing the summer before his sophomore year of high school, when he found himself annotating his yearbook with private notes about his classmates. You’re a good listener, friends’ moms would tell him while their sons were out of earshot. The yearbook became a notebook became an excel file he still regularly updated. His ex-boyfriend Joe had called it borderline committable behavior, but as Micah always drilled into his presentations to junior associates, the first step to a sale was understanding the buyer. Without that, all you ever had was luck.
The youth sermon, Micah telling Mom now, was a parable of God speaking to the faithful. One day Pastor Craig was driving through Big Dig Boston when he passed a sign that read, Craig Bridge still open. Craig Bridge: his own name lettered in LED. The bridge’s proper name was Craigie Bridge. Who abbreviated by two letters? Who signaled that a road was open rather than closed? When a pastor asked a question, the answer was usually God. The sign was a message, the chessboard-moving of traffic cones and construction workers for the benefit of a single solipsistic soul. It meant that his Account, some words were so maximal they had to be capitalized, with God was still Open. No Decision had as yet been made.
Mom said, “I don’t remember that at all.”
“Because it was a youth sermon.”
What did it mean to have an open account with God? Micah remembered a smiling description of a soul trembling issued from a dinner table seat that Pastor Craig filled for a few evenings while Dad was away working through the issues he blamed on Mom. Saving faith required good works and good works required moral clarity, which seemed even to a sixth or seventh grader like a snake eating its own tail situation.
“Didn’t he adopt some kid from El Salvador just before we stopped going?”
Mom wasn't sure.
The airline employee went back to the kiosk and finally there was good news as she called Micah’s boarding, her lips moving a half second before the announcement lisped over the loudspeaker. The woman’s winding spire of hair, Micah thought, would be the thing he’d remember, the way it punctuated the lines of passengers passing back and forth in front of the kiosk.
Micah told Mom he had to go, and only realized as he hung up that he hadn’t asked whether she was upset. Of course that’s why she’d called.
His bags were gathered and carried and dropped near the group of people blocking the skybridge. Start, stop. It was a chore to pay attention to something you had no control over. Like, how many times had Pastor Craig driven over the Craigie Bridge and been ever so slightly disappointed at not finding anything actionable? Maybe the whole Bridge family was named after Boston bridges. Tobin Bridge. Eliot Bridge. Micah couldn’t think of any others. He boarded with his fellow Mosaic passengers and sat on the aisle, then stood to let an older woman take the window seat. Start, stop.
There was an imaginary ear towards which Micah directed these asides that his therapist had helped him identify as belonging to Joe, the same ex-boyfriend who’d objected to his spreadsheets. But they weren’t asides, he corrected himself in his therapist’s voice, if they were important enough to share. He and Joe had met at UMass and lived together after college. It was one of those things, and this thought was also Joe- and therapist-directed, where if you could unspool and splice, Micah would have chosen to drop his scenes with Joe into a later part of the film, reshoot his early twenties, and achieve a satisfying resolution at thirty.
This was a breakthrough, said the therapist.
“How would Joe feel if he knew he was still in your life?”
But Micah wasn’t sure he wanted to know, and a few months later, the breakthrough had already passed into well trod territory. It felt reheated, sickened with digestive smells, and even this thought staled as he jawed it silently into Joe’s patient ear.
Another delay occurred on the runway while the captain’s fried voice intercommed about weather over the Great Lakes. Micah listened to a couple behind him bemoan the wedding rehearsal they’d already missed. The woman in the window seat read a book until they finally took off, and then went to sleep with her hands in her lap. Micah pulled out his laptop and began to go over his PowerPoint.
There’d been a time when it was easier to move in new circles, both within yourself and in the world. As you got older, you began to run up against the same people, and always the same self. Joe was still living in the condo he’d bought when Micah moved out. His spreadsheet entry said so.
The plane dipped and Micah looked past his sleeping seatmate, but the window was closed. This must have been the weather the fried voice had described.
If two or three consecutive flights are delayed, the traveler begins to factor delay into his travel. Did Pastor Craig ever look for other avenues of communication, driving by his namesake bridge day after day, waiting for the hook around which to wind his life’s story? Maybe his mail. Every bill a notice of God’s Accounting. Census Takers His Agents.
Micah went back to his PowerPoint, and as he did, the plane dropped, like just before you fall asleep and your thoughts begin to scatter. His seatmate came alive and slammed her armrest. Their seats stuttered. But the woman didn’t seem afraid, only confused, as if she’d forgotten something vital she’d been meaning to say.
CARLOS PERONA CALVETE
DARWIN G DENNISON
DIEGO A. PENA
J. J. DETTMAN
POOJA RATHNAKUMAR SENGOTTUVEL
R. E. HAGAN
RUTH Z. DEMING