“They dug and dug.” —Paul Celan
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The Angel’s Monologue
Something to be said for blasphemy: it makes people sit up and take notice. Good Lord, you’re still in the bathroom? Allah bored. Porco dio. Jesus and Hitler had a lot in common—one Jews killed, one killed Jews. Man, it gets them riled. People. Why get so worked up? Drink. Lay back. Fall in love. Once I came upon a cage with a thousand cockatiels, lemon, rose, blueberry, cloud. They flitted. They swooped. They sang. A leashed terrier pointed with his black nose. A girl poked her fingers through the wire. It gave my brain a bruise. People. Can’t stand to lose control. Take rainbows, melted color! glee in the sky! yippee after the storm! People want to explain optics, angles, rays, points. O Descartes did you dream this world? People. Beauty in codes and promises. Take the word gnosis. Who are they kidding?
Have you heard the one about Hitler poisoning his dog? Everyone in the Fuhrerbunker crowded into a room where he took his evening tea, and Hitler dictated “My Political Testament: The Jews are to blame,” and in the end, he gave Blondie her biscuit. To his followers he said, “It’s laced with cyanide.” Blondie was old and couldn’t hear, but she could read lips. “I forgive you,” she barked in code. No one but the secretary understood. She kept her mouth closed. Faithful beasts! O blasphemy, who can forgive but God?
Satan and I played a game of Scrabble once, and his first four words all started with S. Sin, scream, scum, squint. He cracked his knuckles. Then grunt, he wrote. Breaking the pattern? I asked. He winked, I did with the Virgin Mary two thousand years ago. Then, No dummy, only four s tiles in this game—there are rules. People. They love it. Cockatiels in a cage. Manifestoes of violence. But then there’s art: sliced-up cows, sculptures of blood, prophylactics in unmade beds, no happy pantheistic relationship of confidence there. People. The arc of human life. Take a roomful of men praying on the Eastern Shore of Maryland—or don’t. I’m off now. Got to see some art models on vacation down in the Keys. Looking for an out of body experience.
Old Woman Sleeping
In my daughter’s apartment it snows. There is the bureau where I set my trunk. There is the table lamp. There is the poinsettia on the windowsill. The poinsettia is red and green but at night it’s black and gray. There is the book of awful photographs Therese showed me this afternoon. Why did she show me that book?
Therese is worried about her son. Gabriel cannot be the scoundrel they say he is. I blame my daughter for raising him the way she did. I said it when her father bought the big river house and again when I left the Eastern Shore. Now I’m back to die. Gabriel has torn up his roots and run off to a West Coast city to huddle on the street. Therese says he is heartsick.
See the lamp lighting up snow. There is the open closet. There is the mirror where this afternoon Therese stared at her face. She came in with medicine and planted the tray on the chair. She brought her camera and took pictures of me asleep on this bed. Who snaps pictures of her mother’s death?
In the mirror Therese pinched her cheeks to make them glow. Her husband Harry has gone prematurely gray. The tray she planted on the chair sprouts roots. There is no earth, only pavement.
My grandson Gabriel holds up a sign. It is too far. I can’t read it. He squats, his face pocked and bitten. A girl approaches him with scissors. I recognize her. The girl clips a stem off a plant. Toss this in dirt and it will grow, she says. It’s called donkey tail, the roots will sprout pink. My grandson takes her hand, and they start to leave. Make them stay. Are some plants poisonous, I want to know. I shout my question, and the girl lets go of Gabriel. She reaches toward me with strong arms. Under her fingernails there is dirt. With the scissors she cuts my hair. Slowly she turns into my mother. I shall be weeping this evening—
I was dreaming. It is warm under this blanket, but where am I? Alone in this bed. Where is my doctor husband, my ex-husband these many years? Dead of liver cancer. Dead. There is the window, the waning moon, snow in the air. Therese’s book showed photographs of shot children. Severed legs. Women’s ribs. Crushed glass rubbed into chest wounds. Men with legs folded like birds’ wings. Decaying white bodies in piles. Midnight now, and the snow grows.
My nose is cold. My grandson Gabriel squats on the corner with swollen eyes, pierced flesh, cracked lips. He is begging for money. For dope, who knows? The book also showed Nazi women. Hitler’s mistress holding a white rabbit and a sketch of herself. The Goebbels mother wandering like a ghost with cyanide in her bag. I will feed it to them in hot chocolate. My daughter Therese thinks good is good and evil is bad. Her son is gone. Harry, her husband, has gone prematurely gray.
My ex-husband, I tell the girl from the garden center, is dead. She nods and says, Toss it in the earth and it will grow. You don’t know what I mean, I say. What dope does my grandson take, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, crystal meth?
The girl wrinkles. She is Therese in the mirror, pinching her cheeks to make them glow. I shiver. Therese, I say, it is cold even under this blanket. The snow falls like an afghan. There is no dirt, only asphalt and concrete sidewalk under snow. The poinsettia sits in my room. Why are some plants poisonous? My grandson Gabriel wanders in like a ghost. Death waits at the door like a grandson. The girl is gone. Snow falls like crystal powder and pluffs on the dirt. It lands on the backs of cars, on the backs of grandsons, on the backs of children and mothers. There in dimness I see the poinsettia, black and gray. My trunk lies open. The closet is full of dark. I shall be weeping this evening. Therese takes pictures. I am dreaming. It was a dream.
Man in a Boat
Mike Gootee’s my name. Or used to be last time I wrote it down. When I picked up my final paycheck from the Talbot County Correctional Facility I’m sure I signed my name. Was that last Tuesday? Funny I’m a retired corrections officer. I’m breaking the law. Stole this dinghy. Dragged it out of the Dorchester Historical Society boathouse right down to this patchy ice.
Some black dude’s coming down the Choptank’s shore. Walking in the snow. Jesus Christ he’s wearing all white. White derby. White overcoat. White trousers. White leather shoes. Mister you gotta be kidding. Walking around Cambridge in a white suit middle a December? I don’t think so. Must not be from around here. Keep walking mister. I knew you would. Don’t look at me out on the ice.
It’s sure cold out on the river. I got to get back inside. Except inside is cold too. I don’t think the electric bills are correct. They say I owe too much. Can’t believe everything you read.
Today’s Star-Republican showed photos of a kid’s graffiti. I got it right here. I lost a brother & with his spirit I converse daily & hourly in the Spirit. This kid uses an old poet’s letters. Heard of William Blake? I heard of him. Crazy old coot. My wife used to mention him. Listen to this. Kid paints Blake’s words on old buildings. They pay him to do it. Thirteen years ago. I hear his advice & even now write from his Dictate—
Can’t believe everything you read.
There’s that black guy again. Look at his pointy white collar. Crackpot. What’s he checking out? Looks like river ice. Way too damn cold to be falling in the Choptank. Better stand back. Walking this way now. The hell is he doing?
& See him in my remembrance in the region of my Imagination.
This can’t be today’s paper. Date on top says October, but it’s December, ain’t it? I don’t think it was last week I signed my name. Or a couple months ago. On a Tuesday. Eve left me on a Tuesday. She said I was a dead end. I argued. I asked about starting our family. I said she should start thinking on it. She said I was old and crazy.
Sometimes I wished she would of been like other women. Except then she wouldn’t of been Eve Gootee.
She left on a Tuesday in December. Has it been one year or more? Before she left she stopped. Stopped vacuuming. Stopped washing dishes. Stopped doing laundry. Just sat on the couch all day reading books. That was her sign. Preparing me. All’s I read is the Star-Republican. I don’t pay the bill. The old subscription just keeps coming.
Blake appears to this kid in dreams. I should get Blake out of the library and copy one of his letters to mail to Eve. Sign it with my name. Least what used to be my name. I think when she left she stole my name.
Maybe I’ll call that guy over. Ask if he’d like to ride on a stolen dinghy. Show him the paper. How this Blake guy and graffiti kid are in with spirits. As to Myself about whom you are so kindly Interested. I live by Miracle. Why not?
He’s walking away. What’s he doing out here in the middle a winter anyway?
“Hey! You in the white suit. Don’t run. I wanna ask your mind on something.”
He’s pretty far away but he’s turned. He’s dazzling clean. I can see his white hat. There’s a couple holes in the brim.
“Er,” I yell again. “Ever read poetry?” Jesus he’s gonna think I’m a queer. “I want to send a poem to someone. To remind her, know what I mean? Let her hear from an old friend.”
I lean from my boat and reach toward him. Hold out the article showing the front page. I really am sorry that you are falln out with the Spiritual World. He’s nodding. Saying something. Walking out on the ice. I can’t quite hear him. His voice sounds I don’t know. Like it’s coming from far away.
“What’s that?” I ask.
He’s near me now. Right about to get in the boat. Dressed in a white derby. In the middle of December. White shoes. Hoyle. I think he’s saying his name’s Hoyle. He’s looking at the paper. He’s asking what I am called. He wants to know my name?
My wife is like a flame of many colours of precious jewels.
“I think she took my name.”
Last April, when we learned I was pregnant and moved up from Cambridge, Maryland, to Alexander’s home in NYC, I started thinking about my brain—the size and shape of it, how it works, whether I’ll be satisfied with it after the baby comes.
Many unpleasant things happened in those days: sirens, spilled coffee, crushed subway traffic, my JP Morgan job, cold shoulders on walks home, grocery lines, my husband not returning until nine, ten, eleven at night. My brain lay wide open, taking all this in, a funnel narrowing the flow to a single stream. It’s amazing how I felt calm and happy thinking about the baby. My mother called every other day. Alexander usually remembered in the morning to ask how I was feeling, pausing from his life at least for that. I might have gone crazy with the loneliness of the city if it weren’t for my funnel.
Then, at the start of summer, I conceived of it differently. Instead of directing the flow, it lost most of the input. Brain, I doodled rather than taking notes during the investment meeting, = sieve. I wondered whether I had taken my vitamins. Whether I had turned off the bathroom light. Whether I had locked our apartment door. When I watched the morning news, I didn’t remember what I saw by the time I arrived at work. At lunch, I spoke with strangers, and on the occasion that Alexander and I saw each other in the evenings, I couldn’t remember what things anyone might have said. I looked out the tiny window in the kitchen at the purple spring evening sky. I rubbed my enlarging middle and forgot about the cat needing food, the laundry service I needed to schedule, the wedding gift thank-yous still needing to be written. I forgot the names of Alexander’s colleagues, the ones he was meeting for drinks rather than coming home. My sieve worked to keep me quiet. New York seemed to sleep with its eyes open, waiting for a smell, a sign, proof that something was going wrong.
Then it was a spoon. I told my mother that on the phone, and she laughed her My daughter, crazy New Yorker! laugh that helps her get along with her friends. A spoon stirs the pot. Alexander was so committed to his career, and I wanted to have a family. My mother didn’t see any problem with the arrangement, she said that’s how she and Father succeeded. You call it success, I stirred in my head. Last spring, a bride-to-be, I sent invitations my mother had had engraved: Dr. William Snow and Mrs. Patricia Snow request the honor of your presence at the marriage of their daughter Sarah Elizabeth to Mr. Alexander Worthington Stone, Saturday, the twenty-first of February at Noon, Saint Andrew’s Church, Cambridge, Maryland. I spooned with Alexander every night until we conceived.
It was the end of the summer, one weekend when Alexander was around and we walked together to Central Park and we stood on the Lake at the Ladies’ Pavilion, when my brain was a boat. For a moment, Alexander seemed suddenly boyish, excited by my swollen middle after months of barely noticing. I felt giddy and confused, navigating through unknown waters. My brain had set the course and had stayed afloat all the weekends he put in extra hours at work.
In the fall, I quit working. I floated through the city by myself. Battery Park, Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, the New York Public Library, the Manhattan Civil Courthouse. The last was a giant building, faced with limestone stainless steel, and a plaque outside that I stopped to read: This courthouse was the City’s first to be recognized and honored as barrier-free and accessible to persons with disabilities. When I stepped up and waved my arms at the doors, the automatic sensor didn’t work. The sliding glass doors stayed sealed. I moored myself there in the small park to think. A few days later, I packed my bag and pulled in the oars of my boat. I’ve drifted where the tide carried me. For this baby to come, the tide bore me back to the Eastern Shore. Here I am in Cambridge, me and my brain and a baby about to be born.
That thin woman’s looking at us.
See her eyes running back and forth over our lines, girth, depth. Ow my head, Brucie buddy, you got to stop, we’re stuck in a thick paste, you big ox. I’m not stuck. Yes you are, and that thin woman in black is watching us. Recognize her from the office? Narrow face, twitching nose, sharp eyes, Frank’s assistant. She’s checking out our pink ears, our under-eye bags. Don’t look up. When she came in, there was snow on her black coat melting into her dyed blond hair. She walked by our table to the stacks and now she’s back with her pointed chin. Staring at our nose flesh, our flabby forearms, our hairless pate, oh glory. Suck in, roll down your sleeves. She’s leaving now, keep your nob down. Eyes on the page. Focus, read, this interesting book about Eva Braun. Why did she fall in love with Hitler? We got to stop thinking this way. Yeah, and the North Dorchester Library should be built for the fat, Polyphemus.
Have we always been this way? No we have not. Once upon a time we were fine. You weren’t a hopeless temp answering Barth Office Supply phones for a toady named Frank. We were a boy dreaming he might study history or psychology. Once upon a time we were alive and unafraid of secretaries dressed in black. We knew friends and loved a sail on the Chesapeake and spent evenings at the Pub. Why’d everything have to change?
Here’s Eva Anna Paula Braun, look at her picture. Cute girl, but the books call her plain. Bruce you got to find out what happened to Eva Braun. Why did she fall in love with a monster? It’s not written down in history but it’s not lost either. If we could write poetry, we’d write about youth like a burned-down house. The smoldering whitewash, the streaked windows, the smoke smell. You’re a kid again, Bruce, hitting a stitched white ball. You’re running from first to second, sliding, eating dirt, scraping our hands, reaching, reaching, thrown out at third. You’re in the home you grew up in, Dad riding his stationary bike, Mom reading Tidewater Tales on the couch.
She’s back. Walking across the waxy floor. Swiveling to stare at us.
Focus, focus. Eva Braun was a blonde. The books call her an athletic girl fond of skiing, mountain climbing, gymnastics, dancing. Fresh-faced and slim. I’m a big jellyroll. Is Frank’s assistant still looking? Peer around the room, no black dress to be seen. How do she and Frank get along? If I asked, she might answer, He’s a bastard. I could nod, say, Known him for years. I don’t plan on being there long, she’d say. She’d ask, What does someone like you like to read? I am two people, I’d say. One crushing enormous lardass who loves poetry and psychology and the other a history buff thin as a pane of glass.
How do they know, these writers? What went on in private rooms? Braun was a photographer’s assistant, that’s documented. Of her life with Hitler they write, She spent most of her time exercising, brooding, reading cheap novelettes, watching romantic films or concerning herself with her own appearance. Bruce, look at yourself. When are you going to trim the hairs in your nose? My head hurts, a thick pressure like glue. Stop thinking this way. Eva Braun went to convent school, became Hitler’s mistress, shot herself, didn’t die, tried again two years later with pills, lived fourteen more years. You sit moaning, Bruce, because you’re alone and huge. Some small female dressed in black finds your hulking body grotesque. You’re naked on display, a giant walrus at the zoo.
Oh God, there she is again, back with three books, walking over to our table.
We will not say a word. What has she chosen to read? Is she married? Kids? Don’t have kids. In the bunker, all six Goebbels’ children dead. Hitler believed geniuses could give birth to cretins. It makes a certain sense. Dad taught psychology at Salisbury University, trim and fit, and Mom read all the time. Children are a risk. I’m a whale working phones for a loser named Frank.
She’s right behind you. We can hear her breath, shallow and light. Maybe she cannot speak. I should turn around. Ask if she knows about Eva Braun, how she married her Adolf and the next day swallowed poison, and he shot himself in the head, and the books call her plain and athletic. I’ll say, Eva was layered, concealing herself.
“Why’d she fall in love with a monster?” the boss’s assistant might ask.
She was depressed, I’ll say. She could not see well. Had giant holes for eyes.
The most beautiful thing I know is the Choptank River stretching out from Cambridge so far you lose sense of it. It runs to the Chesapeake, then to the Atlantic, then away over the whole globe. My teacher Ms. Bowdle says water connects the continents, so Choptank water could show up anywhere on earth. Africa, Asia, Europe, anyplace you can name.
The other most beautiful thing is the color brown. Every time I like something, I’m told it’s brown. My mother’s hair is brown. My cat Tucker is brown. The river is brown. Chocolate, tree bark, dogs in the park. I like to dress in brown.
Tucker breathes on my windowsill. My mother sits with Tucker and me on the sofa, watching out the apartment window and telling me what she sees. Solly, she says, There goes a man so large, his head looks like a big bald pillow, he’s not even wearing a coat. What color is his shirt, I ask. Red, my mother tells me, apple-red. There goes a very pregnant lady, my mother says, in a bright yellow coat, rubbing her belly around and around. Tucker purrs softly on my arm. There is another cat, white, who likes to stare back at us. He sits on the sidewalk, watching for Tucker. Then he darts across the street, up the steps of another building to stop and scratch. I wonder if he’s out there now.
My cat sleeps with me at night. He tells the skeletons to go home. In my dreams, the skeletons are upset. They say they died before their time.
It’s December 1, and not many families celebrate Hanukkah in Cambridge. Bobe, my father’s mother, visits from Baltimore to light the menorah and sing Shelo yichbe neiro l’olam v’ed. Which means the light will burn forever. We give presents and spin dreidels, but before celebrating, we watch the documentaries. My father’s grandparents, Johann and Ilse Katz, died at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many cousins and great aunts and uncles of my father, at Treblinka and Dachau. My mother is not Jewish, she is from the Eastern Shore, but she manages the traditions. I sit by while she and Bobe grate potatoes. We eat them dipped in applesauce. Shelo yichbe neiro l’olam v’ed.
We watch the documentaries before Bobe arrives. She says it is a morbid thing to do around the holiday, and I agree that it is terrible. My father describes the pictures for me. Six million people going to die. Barbed wire. Rows of wooden prison shoes. Signs with skull-and-crossbones. One film shows the American army sweeping through southern Germany. When troops head to Hitler’s headquarters, they find strange mounds in the snow. Every year, my father cries at the discovery of barely dressed people, Jews, under a layer of snow. When the show ends, I hold my father’s hand, and he puts me to bed. My cat is already on the blanket. My father kisses me goodnight.
Tucked in bed, I imagine the rough grain of wood on my feet. The smoothness of skulls. The cold skin of a body in snow. The people in the documentaries are worse than anything imaginable. Sometimes they appear in my dreams, rising from the snow. They reach out with thin white fingers to touch my cold face. They look at me with big holes for eyes.
Then my cat arrives, all brown like a tree and a river, and tells the people they are dead. Time to go home. He tells them to get out of my dreams. Sometimes the white cat comes. He and Tucker feel the same color in my dream. They play and run in the snow.
I love to sit on the steps outside, or go to Stewart Park on the river, but today it’s frozen, so Tucker and I sit behind the windowpane. My mother tells me: There goes a man cradling a book, his coat is stuffed with newspaper. There goes a middle-aged woman with a camera and snowflake tears stuck in her hair. There goes another woman. She has a tiny, tiny baby wrapped in fur, holding it to her lips like you hold Tucker. Tucker purrs. His friend, the white cat, watches us from outside.
There are many things to love about the Eastern Shore in winter. The warm radiators at the North Dorchester library, the smell of wind off the frozen fields, my brown wool gloves and scarf that I wear out on the fishing bridge, holding my parents’ arms as they describe the pink sunset and ice cracked by the tides. There are so many things. When I get old enough, I will see the world. California, China, Africa. I’ll go to Germany, where the barbed wire, the train tracks, the barracks, and the pits wait for me, and red and yellow castles, trains, and trails wait for me too. I want to feel the rivers as they run to the seas and farther, out to the oceans. It will be sad and beautiful, and my sight will stretch over the whole world.
In my belly, then on my belly'”only minutes ago it was part of my body. I didn’t imagine how its face would look like my father’s, where’s the nurse gone? A girl, the doctor said, I closed my eyes and saw a little dark moon. I opened and saw a reddish shriveled bump. What’s her name, the doctor said, and I moaned, Eva Green. I can’t touch this angry kitten humped on my front. The light is in my eyes, my legs are numb. Look at them shake. The thing on my belly is wet and apple-colored, the face of my father only lighter skinned. I imagined it, and here it is, on my belly a huddled fish, a glistening hush, shocked to be loose from the womb. Flesh on flesh, her cord attached to me still. Not how I imagined it before. I had imagined something wavy and soft, wet inner flesh. There was a beat of two hearts, one fluttering fast, the other steady and slow, song with no words. Inside me moments ago, she was a faceless, a kicking, a solid, supple mound. I’d imagined a dark huntress on a horse leaning into the world. Now I see something weak and knotty, gums and fuzz, mouth atremble. She is so separate now. Her mouth quavers in the angry mask of my father. My daughter Eva. What has she always already imagined before, when the world was a warm dark place? Before she crouched like a contracted muscle, color of apple, slippery and raw? What does she imagine now, helpless puddle on my belly? Does she imagine my face a mask of stone? I can’t help it, I have become a mother, one of the world’s dreams. A mother knows more than I know, a mother is warm and good. I am cold and fearful. I want to help this puzzled lump, this mouth about to bawl, but I am not strong. My legs are bowed, knees up to the ceiling, I can’t feel them. My fists are exhausted balls. Where’s the nurse gone, leaving this baby on my belly to wobble? What did I know before this, what was I, what happens now?