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chokecherriesAt Easter, in the early years when my mother was still sane, she cut lengths of pussy willow branches and brought them inside. Not yet budded, they came laden with soft silver pods like rabbits’ feet. She took colored powders and dusted the fur pods. Pale yellow, pink, lavender, blue.

My mother told my father, They’re trying to kill us. She said, They’re coming after us.  She said, They are a band of assassins hired by the CIA to kill the families of Green Berets. He said to her, that doesn’t make any god damn sense.

Reality is slippery. If someone tells you something often enough for long enough, regardless of whether it’s true, you begin to believe it. Or at least you might begin to doubt your own perceptions, think, maybe she knows something I don’t know. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there’s something here that I don’t understand.

endofevecoverLung Cancer Noir

Two months shy of the death date my mother had written on her calendar in red pen, Sol and I sublet our studio apartment to an art student for the school year. We’d keep the shop space downstairs.

“Your situation is interesting,” the art student said as he signed the lease agreement. “If there’s a gay kid in the family, it’s always the gay kid who has to take care of the sick parent. I always thought that was because the gay kid wouldn’t have any children of their own. But that’s obviously not true for you.”

I shrugged. “Always great to be the gay kid.” And we packed up the car again for our move across town.

“Let’s make a pact,” Sol said as she turned the key in the ignition. “If we start plotting to murder your mother, we have to move out.”

I laughed. “Agreed.” But I knew she wasn’t kidding.

It’s always a joy to sit down and talk with Michael Kimball. He’s into his cats, he plays softball (and is quite competitive!), he likes music, and he wears interesting T-shirts that make you want to scoot your chair back so you can get a good look. BIG RAY is Michael’s fourth book and, I think, his most intimate and moving. Whereas his other novels (Us, The Way the Family Got Away, Dear Everybody) all deal with loss of some sort, and are touching and powerful, BIG RAY emotionally dives down to a whole new level. You can’t help but be somewhat changed after reading this book.

Here’s what Michael Kimball has to say about BIG RAY:

My finger pushes into the number two hole of the round dial on the wall telephone that hangs in the kitchen. I have to stand on this chair to reach it. Sometimes when I pick up the receiver I hear my neighbor talking. My mom says I have to hang up when that happens, but I don’t always do that. I listen because I hope I will hear a secret.

What do you do when your mother dies and you feel lost in the world, angry and hell-bent on self-destruction? You take a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Or at least, that’s what Cheryl Strayed did in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf). This is an epic journey across mountains and deserts—and along the way we are forced to endure snow and rain, intense heat and brutal cold—a passenger in the overloaded backpack that Cheryl Strayed calls “Monster.” While this is certainly a memoir—and we do spend time inside her head thinking about the death of her mother, her relationship with her family, and her troubled history with men—it is just as much a tale of wanderlust, the outdoors, and an education that only Mother Nature can provide.

Early on, Strayed (which later morphs into “Starved,” the letters on her necklace difficult to read at times) gives us a bit of backstory to help us understand why she is doing this:

 

My dog’s ashes are currently in a small silver gift box on my bookshelf. I loved my dog, but I hate that ugly box and its stupid tassel.

When my husband and I decided to cremate Bernie, we thought we would scatter his ashes along one of his favorite hiking trails, but doing so is illegal where we live. I hated the idea of us furtively dumping a baggy of remains in the always-crowded park. It didn’t feel like an appropriately jubilant celebration of his life.

3:36

By Douglas Richardson

Poem

I lived my entire life in a hippie commune.
I don’t have much to say about it,
but this doesn’t mean I was dull
or without conviction.

I was born three months premature.
My mom ate poison mushrooms
and drank Southern Comfort
because she thought it would
make her more like Janis Joplin.

There is no better time for an epiphany than the holiday season, and this year mine was about how the world is divided into those who ‘do’ pastry and those who don’t. By doing I mean making their own. And by making your own pastry, I mean I don’t. These polarities abound. Those who beep at traffic lights and those who don’t. You either eat before noon or you gag at the thought. There is never a sometimes. You run, or you Zumba (fool!). Succulents. Love them or hate them. There is no in between. I’m not one of those moms who sits in the sandbox with her kids. But there they are, and here I am. It’s not the kids who put me off, it’s the other parents in there, and nothing short of a miracle can move me.

Shut up our mother said we couldn’t say,
so behind her back we said it all the time
risking her witch’s look, the hairbrush,
or a talk from our father whose sadness
we exacerbated with our acting up, not that
he much cared what we said to each other
but punishing his sons wasn’t what he wanted
after working all day and so it was a failure
of strategy on our part to provoke our mother
to have to ask him to talk to us about shut up
or the picture I drew of turds dropping
from a stick man’s butt or Bill’s tantrum
in front of Miss Ossie Price, but I still can’t
get the words out, something shuts me down
when I’m around somebody who needs to hear it–
yesterday morning I saw this girl get right
in a guy’s face in the City Market parking lot,
they were smoking and kind of stepping around,
when she shouted, “Shut up!” leaning into him,
grinning and red-faced as if what he’d said
was so damn scandalous but perfectly delicious
like I know you’re not wearing underwear today
or blankety blank blank, and god did it hit me hard,
sixty-five years old, both parents long dead,
and whatever that girl was feeling right then–
which had to be some fantastic amalgam of arousal,
embarrassment, shame, and joy–wasn’t anything
I’m ever going to feel, even if I get another
sixty-five, even if I ever do break through
and finally ask some jackass to please be quiet.

Viktor Frankl conceived of three elements every person must face in life, and in fact must resolve in order to find life meaning.  Frankl’s tragic triad[i] is comprised of pain, guilt, and suffering.  I believe how we face these generational and humanity-wide inner crucibles with determination, individually and in community with others, builds our capacity to heal and be healed, and affirms our capacity to love and be loved.  In coming to a better understanding of our own existence, we must pass through the history of our mothers and fathers, and our choices in this regard are of paramount importance.

A Gemini Interviews Her Other Mouth

 

Gemini: I suppose you remember what your mother told you about Geminis…

Lidia: Yup. She said, in a thick southern drawl, “Well, you know, being with a Gemini is like being in a room with 50 people.”

 

Gemini: So which you are you today?

Lidia: The Lidia that just picked her kid up from school on her way to the grocery store before she washes clothes.

 

Gemini: Ah. The domestic Lidia.

Lidia: Correct.

 

Gemini: She’s fucking boring.

Lidia: Gee, thanks. But you are dead wrong.

 

Gemini: What’s not dull about domesticity?

Lidia: Gee Gemini, lemme make a list. There’s the fact that our bodies generate, oh, I don’t know, ALL OF HUMAN LIFE, we are the other side of masculine action in terms of reflection, repetition, cyclical experience and generative practices, we make a place of comfort and grace for a body to come home to—

 

Gemini: Busted. You are the worst housecleaner I’ve ever met and you know it. Forget dust bunnies. You’ve got dust godzillas…and I know for a fact there are year old underwear and socks under your bed.

Lidia: I’m not talking about housekeeping. I’m talking about how a woman makes a compassion home of not only her body, but any environment she comes into contact with. Even you do with your bitchy, fierce, chaotic, electric body.

 

Gemini: Oh Jeeeeeeez…..I was wondering how long it was going to take you to get to talking about bodies. That took like 15 seconds. What is your DEAL with bodies? COW is crawling with them.

Lidia: Well, you already know my DEAL with bodies…I love them. All of them. I think they are pretty much the coolest thing in ever. I wish more of us could love them with abandon. The book is a bodystory, and I told it in the hopes that other people might think about their own body stories. I think the body is a metaphor for experience and an epistemological site. And having carried life and death there, I feel like I am in a good position to speak about the body.

 

Gemini: Man. Talk about a buzz kill. But since we’re on the topic – why didn’t you tell in your book what your daughter’s name was?

Lidia: Lily. I couldn’t make a sentence big enough to hold her.

 

Gemini: What’s the one sentence in COW that matters to you the most?

Lidia: “Love is a small tender.”

 

Gemini: That’s not even a grammatically correct sentence.

Lidia: Fuck grammar. It’s fascist in its need to shape experience away from bodies.

 

Gemini: WHATEVER. Again with the bodies.

Lidia: And language. What sentence matters the most to you?

 

Gemini: I think it’s a cross between “This is your daughter leaving, motherfucker,” and “Even angry girls can be moved to tears.”

Lidia: I can understand that. Your you and my me have a lot in common—two sides of a girlbody.

 

Gemini: Why does the body matter? I’ve been throwing this body at life forever and it’s a wonder it’s still functioning…isn’t it the brain that saved us? Isn’t it the brain that makes pretty much everything matter?

Lidia: Well I don’t buy that old Cartesian Dualism thing. There is no mind body split. But the mind is more culturally valued and sanctioned than the body, and the body is more objectified, abjectified, and commodofied in this culture. Like Whitman, I am interested in the mindbody that is closer to energy and matter and the whole DNA spacedust universe shebang.

 

Gemini: Oh I see how you are. Now you are trying to be grad school mouth Lidia. OK smarty girl, how would you define “edgy?” Isn’t that what you are trying to be?

Lidia: Actually, to be honest with you, I think I’m just trying as hard as I can to be precise. Not edgy. I guess I’d define edgy as twitchy and confused. Tweakers and Republicans come to mind. I think when people call certain kinds of writing “edgy” they probably mean it made their brains itchy or something…but in COW I tried to be exact is all. Emotionally, linguistically, physically, lyrically, exact.

 

Gemini: By the way. I know why you refer to The Chronology of Water as COW. And it ain’t bovine.

Lidia: True.

 

Gemini: You wanna tell em, or should I?

Lidia: Go for it.

 

Gemini: “COW” is the euphamism Gertrude Stein used to refer to …

Lidia: Spanking twinkies.

 

Gemini: Which is your favorite bodily fluid?

Lidia: That’s easy. Cum and tears. Because they are salty like the ocean. Although Andy and I did have a good run with breast milk.

 

Gemini: Speaking of bodies and women and language, rumor has it on the cyber streets that you like to sometimes give readings wearing a special outfit.

Lidia: Occasionally.

 

Gemini: Did you ever worry that the “outfit” might embarrass your husband and son?

Lidia: I don’t know…hold on a minute and I’ll go ask them…

 

Gemini: HEY! While she’s out of the room lemme tell you some secrets about her…she likes to wear wigs, in her thirties sometimes on airplanes she’d adopt a foreign accent and invent a name, she plays clarinet, she once peed on the steps of the Capitol, and she once broke into someone’s home and stole all their stuff so they could collect the insurance. Luckily it was a long long time ago. Oh. Crap. She’s back…

Lidia: So I asked Andy and Miles if my reading outfit embarrasses them. Andy said, “Well, sort of it must, because I kind of get a stomach ache when you do it and I think to myself, oh Lidia…” And Miles said, “No, you just look more like you.” Why do you have that shit eating grin on your face? Have you been telling stories about me?

 

Gemini: Absolutely not. So here’s a question that’s been bugging me.

Lidia: Shoot.

 

Gemini: Why is your COW book all …. You know, choppyish?

Lidia: You mean why is it written in fragments and out of order?

 

Gemini: Yeah. Like I said. Choppy.

Lidia: Because I was trying to mimic the way memory works in biochemistry and neuroscience terms. Pieces of things brought together in a resolving system.

 

Gemini: Look at the big brain on the lid. Gimme a break.

Lidia: Seriously.

 

Gemini: Yeah I KNOW. Isn’t this partly why no agents will touch you? Because you have to “do things” to your stories? Every thought of telling them like a normal human being?

Lidia: I am telling them as precisely as I know how…I am telling them the way they feel to me, as true as I can get the language to go strange.

 

Gemini: Yeah yeah yeah. Tell the truth but tell it slant. Dickinson.

Lidia: Yup.

 

Gemini: Look how much action that got her. No offense, but she was kind of an isolate. Definite bummer at parties. Not a very snappy dresser either, I might add.

Lidia: Well, I am quite fond of isolates. And I used to have to breathe into a brown paper bag at parties in the bathroom. And my fashion sense is questionable.

 

Gemini: I’ll say. Ever heard of this thing called a “haircut?”

Lidia: I think you got all the social genes…and I’m guessing I have you to thank for all the unusual undergarments?

 

Gemini: Bingo.

Lidia: And rule breaking? And un-ladylike behavior? And anger? And propensity to fuck up? And a wide variety of boots? And potty mouth? And sexual excess? And drugs and alcohol and…

 

Gemini: Do you have a point, oh miss big breasted faux mother goddess?

Lidia: Yeah. I have a point. Let’s throw a lip over it and drink to it. My friend Karen Karbo gave me a bottle of Ardbeg, and my friend Chelsea Cain gave me a bottle of Glen Livet. Choose your poison.

 

Gemini: Sure you wouldn’t rather brew a nice pot of Jasmine hippie tea?

Lidia: I’m sure. I’m the one who let you into my lifehouse, my bodyhouse, my wordhouse…we are only me together. Cheers.

 

 

Toast

By Mark Sutz

Poem

when i was a boy i spelled butter with a tee aitch in the middle
so my undisciplined tongue could ask for toast with it.

buther, BUTHer, BUTHER, please

“Buttered toast, BUTTERED TOAST, say it slow,” she’d say to me.

i wanted it too ravenously to let the word just molasses out of my mouth,
i needed to spit it out as fast as I could, hunger and craving the only feeling.

nothing better than fresh, melting pats
oozing through to the bottom side so i could tilt
my head back and catch with my tongue
the hot drops of my lisped word.

“More buthered toast, please,” – met with her frown,
her disappointment but, eventually, another slathered slice.

eventually the word morphed, long after my lisp was tamed,
from buther to buthered to, lazily and with the same odd movement
that words have gone through and will go through again, bothered.
it became our family’s in-joke.

we didn’t speak much in the last years of her life
but when i visited, helped the helper, cleaned urine around the base
of the toilet bowl or scrubbed the floor that hadn’t been
scrubbed as well or certainly since my last visit
or just sat, holding her tiny raisin of a head on my chest,
she’d ask for her sister (dead fifty years)
or her husband (dead ten)
or why her daughters never came to visit her (I an only child and a boy)
or what time is it
what time is it
what time is it
what time is it every ten minutes sometimes for an entire day

but the only time I cried, sobbed even, heaved and hurt –
the only time was a single moment of lucidity which wouldn’t return again
when she said she was hungry and
could I please oh please have some bothered toast, son

I was visiting with my friend Katie the other day. She asked me how reading Harry Potter to my eight year old boys was going, as I’d mentioned to her a month or more ago that they were growing weary of reading about the same characters night after night.

“Did you switch to something else after you finished the third book?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “It turns out that toward the end of the third book, when Sirius Black became a more prominent character, the boys became super involved with the story once again. So, we started the fourth book straight away. That Sirius Black character sure seems to be a thing that boys relate to – the teacher archetype. Not a dad, necessarily – a teacher.”

“Well sure,” Katie said. “Everybody wants his Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

“Sure,” I agreed, then paused. “I wonder what the equivalent of that for girls would be.”

When I was three, maybe four, my parents moved from a basement apartment in Skokie, Illinois into their first house, built just for us, in Buffalo Grove. My sister was just over a year old. In the apartment, we shared a bedroom, crib-to-crib on the yellow shag carpeting, and I remember peering up from the mattress to the ceiling-high windows. The sidewalk bisected the pane, and I would watch the meditative parade of winter-booted feet stamp the snow dirty, the orange of the streetlight pooling like the color of memory itself.

I remember listening to my sister sleep, breathe, as orange coins fell from the unseen sky, landed on the sidewalk, and called themselves snow. Perhaps, still in close proximity to the womb, this age and this scene rested, and still rests, in some escaped safety, the kind we spend the rest of our lives, in vain and occasional depression, in more than occasional delusion, chasing.

We left that apartment with my mom one morning, leaving the tiny kitchen where our toys were kept on the shelf that most people would have used for spices; where my parents stored only four glasses, one for each of us, mine a plastic yellow cup, my sister’s a plastic green; where, in the living room, on that same shag carpeting, I lay on my stomach watching Sesame Street, and pissing myself. My mom, when recounting this story, overused the word engrossed.

She had long, straight, middle-parted brown hair, a high forehead, coffee-coaster glasses tinted rose like wine, and wore wool, button-down sweater jackets, sewn with orange and blue diamonds. My father had then peaked at 240 pounds, his curly nest of brown hair and full beard that ran from bottom lip to Adam’s apple, underlining his role as sleepless podiatry student. Everything about his appearance exemplified the words internship, residency… and perhaps, as I later learned, prescription drugs. Together they looked like a 1970s-era Diane Keaton and her sasquatch lover leaving the Skokie apartment landlorded by the Papiers, an elderly Polish couple who survived the Holocaust, and who would sing opera together upstairs, my mom holding me by the armpits up to the radiator vent to hear.

My mom drove northwest with my sister and me to check out the Buffalo Grove house in its skeletal stage, a two-story raised ranch, done in what my mom referred to as “mock-Tudor style.” I confess I don’t know what mock-Tudor style means. Either it’s Tudor style or it’s not. I also confess that I frequently imagined a series of hecklers pointing and laughing as Henry Tudor fought the War of the Roses. This was only after I learned to read though.

With my mom, my sister and I tramped along the floors and stairs—still in their plywood stage—of what would be, and still is, my parents’ home. During the first couple years of home ownership, strapped for cash, my parents took in a boarder. She was beautiful, in an elfish sort of way—large mahogany eyes, large ears, and large hoop earrings through which I would snake my four year old fingers, pulling just gently enough to watch her lobes droop, then snap back into place. I remember she had a freckle on one earlobe, left or right I can’t be sure. And I remember raking my pointer over it, marveling at the way it would catch then release the fingernail like some small speed bump of the body. She must have been in her early twenties and wore her brown hair short and bobbed, down to her ear-tops, and bangs that sometimes ran into her eyes. She would blow them out again with her breath, her bottom lip extended, pink and a little frightening. I remember her without a name, though it could have been Susan, and with a received sensuality that I couldn’t have possibly felt at four, could I?

But I remember lying with her in her room—the room that my father would later turn into a tribute to exercise, with a dumbbell rack, rowing machine, treadmill, weight bench, where he overzealously designed and lorded over my sister’s and my workout regimen, which began at age five. But before this strange childhood horror, I would lie with the boarder on the high bed that my parents supplied her, with frilly-edged sheets and blankets and pillowcases of the same orange and blue of my mom’s sweater jacket. We would lie on that bed of petticoats and talk and touch each other’s skin, before my mom would call me upstairs for dinner. She seemed then my touchstone, my point of entry into the world. She stayed with us for about six months, I think, and then was gone. I don’t remember saying goodbye to her. One day she was there, and the next, she was not, the bed empty, soon to be sold at some garage sale.

Though I didn’t speak of the boarder again for many years, until I was probably about her age, twenty-six and poised to marry Louisa, I recalled her fondly, breezily at intervals throughout my life, in some hazy and delicious sense of loss, so sweet it hurt, some engine driving perhaps, the wanderlust that led me from place after place after place to my wife. When I brought her up aloud, Louisa and I were having dinner at a steakhouse with my parents, my sister and her fiancé, my mom beginning to feel the stirrings of illness that were for so long misdiagnosed as polymyalgia or “general malaise.” Perhaps it was this upsweep of togetherness, of having arrived as a family at some sort of initial platform of…well…arrival, of love, of partnership, of complicity, of medium-rare ribeyes and loaded baked potatoes the size of footballs, of rocks glasses filled with whiskey and vodka, of blue cheese-stuffed olives and the silverware din that releases the mystery endorphin responsible for over-indulgence, but I asked at that table, if my parents knew what became of my beloved boarder and her elastic earlobes. I imagined her happily married to a lucky, lucky man.

A little drunk, my parents laughed and wrinkled their foreheads, confused, my mom’s eyes snapping open and looking healthy for the first time in months. Swallowing, they told me they never took in a boarder at all. That I had imagined the whole thing. It became a joke at the holidays, during Louisa’s and my once-a-year trip into Chicago. Have you talked to the boarder lately?

I can’t explain this. Whoever or whatever she was, she ignited something in me, some sugared longing that Mexico helps put into context. Here, wandering the middle of the night streets of Mexico City, full of food and aphrodisiac elixirs, out of sorts with the love of my life, the world seems full of ghosts. They are almost pedestrian here, not one of them dominating another, and all we can do is submit to their distant sirens, flashing Zócalo lights, legless beggars, orange stone churches, silent bells, Aztec sun gods perched at the dark rooftops.

I take Louisa’s hand and we walk back to the cavernous Rioja. I wonder what is real and what isn’t. I wonder what Louisa sees, strokes, says goodbye to, that I can’t. At a certain age, the world’s radiator vents close themselves, climb too high, and we’re far too heavy to be lifted by the armpits. I wonder what I’m looking for up there anyway, or down there in that inscrutable bedroom; where, in this life, I have yet to board. A wild energy runs into my legs and Louisa must feel it too, thick as crude, because we simultaneously quicken our pace, rush like erogenous ghosts back to our room of echoes. We pass two ancient Aztec women, hunched and tiny. They whisper secret operas to each other, hiding their answers, and perhaps ours too, in the thick black of their braids.

On the way home from my father’s funeral, I stopped to fill the gas tank and use the bathroom before getting on the road. The knob on the bathroom door was broken. Everything was filthy and stank to high heaven. Somehow, I managed to hover above the toilet perched on one high heel while the other foot held the door closed, all while holding my breath. When I was finished, I didn’t bother to force the door shut while I washed my hands. Just as I was making my way out to (blessed) fresh air, the door swung open. An old black man with a cane stood in front of me. Few times in my life have I seen a look of such utter terror.

He quickly diverted his eyes to the floor, scurried backwards, bowed in my direction and repeated, as if in prayer, “I’m sorry ma’am. Excuse me ma’am. Please forgive me ma’am.” I was startled but completely understood his mistake of opening the door with me still in there. I tried to explain that the doorknob was broken, but he just kept scurrying, bowing, and ma’am-ing me. I was dumbfounded. After all, he was probably older than my parents. He had a cane for god’s sake. I should have been referring to him as sir, not him to me as ma’am. And what the heck was all the bowing about?

My father and I hadn’t spoken for nine years when he died. I was hard-pressed to go to his hometown even when we were on speaking terms, so I certainly hadn’t been around those parts when we weren’t. The Civil Rights movement had made little progress there in the 1970’s of my childhood. And apparently the world had continued to move forward around it since then, rather like Jim Crow Brigadoon.

When I got back to the car, I told my mother what happened. She’d been gone from that place since she divorced my dad in the 70s, but even she knew the dynamic. She looked at me with both love and pity that the old man’s perspective on the situation had completely escaped me. She patiently explained that he was undoubtedly scared shitless that my husband or father was going to show up at his house that night and beat the hell out of him for walking in on me.

Nah, I thought. It’s nearly the twenty-first century. Could this place really still be so backward? I thought about going back into the store to explain to the man that I understood that it was an accident and that I had no husband or father. Even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t let them harm him for an honest mistake. And then the man walked out of the store. Our eyes met, and he scurried off as fast as his cane would allow.

It’s been twelve years since that experience, but it still haunts me. I always thought it was because I wondered what horrible experiences in that old man’s life left him so terrorized. That’s true, but there was something else, too. As a feminist and person doing my best to face my role in racial inequity, I don’t expect a man to commit any violent act or intimidation in my name. That said, sitting in that gas station parking lot, having just seen my father buried, was the first time that I had to admit that it was no longer in my power to refuse my father’s ridiculously antiquated and twisted version of chivalry. He would no longer offer it. He was gone.