…how can I bear to go (as soon I must, I know) to bed with ugly death… from “Breakfast Song” Elizabeth Bishop
“Allergic to wine,” the man said. “I’ll bring Scotch in a jar.”
Like a specimen for a medical test. Appropriate: they were in the doctors’ waiting room. Other patients concealing recycled jars under magazines, the waiting room, frankly, smelled. Bishop’s poem ran through Sheila’s head even while talking with the stranger. An unaccustomed tranquillizer of sorts working, she accidentally invited him to Friday’s party, a pre-holiday potluck gathering. Her turn to host fellow Birders, though she dreaded their seeing her new–digs, squat, flat, inefficient efficiency, temporary quarters.
“They’ll bring food and wine. I’ve cider so no interactions with meds—”
“I’ll smuggle in Scotch.” His dose of whatever working too, he slurred.
“Not a mayonnaise jarful…” Sheila envisioned Prohibition-era bootleggers. Another friendly alcoholic? One ex-spouse was enough…
…The marriage had not been bad. In their early days, Benjamin, claiming that with her peachy cheeks and buxom bosom, Sheila resembled Renoir’s Young Woman Braiding Long Black Hair, bought the reproduction to hang over the mantel so the lady reflected in the mirror opposite. Still, Benjamin referred to her paid artist jobs as “hobbies,” and with childhood hang-ups about holidays, mid-Decembers he holed up in a hotel for ten days drinking, who knows what else. Sheila kept up appearances for Molly and Tillie: “Daddy’s away looking after Granny, she gets pneumonia every Christmas. He left checks in our stockings. Let’s refill the bird feeders, then build snowmen in the garden.”
“Snowpersons!” The twins chorused. “Snowdaddies!”
Now one of those December diversions had latched onto Ben. Twins grown, charades outgrown, all had gone their own ways, taking their pets, which had mostly been left to Sheila to tend so had bonded with her. Benjamin moved across town with his old terrier, new lady, the marital bed and other furniture from his side of the family. The twins took collies and cats to college in California. Tillie ostensibly living in a dorm, joining her high school love, Molly with an almost-fiancé put a down payment on a house bought with money from the sale of the family house back East, furnishing it with Sheila’s half of the furniture, and the menagerie. The marital split conducted decorously, Sheila and Benjamin kept in occasional contact, though she had not updated him on her medical “challenges.”
Sheila ought to view the departures of family and pets, gentle disentanglements with interim lovers, her furnished rental efficiency, and the rest of the fuzz-buzz, as mere revisions to early drafts, updates to backstories. Now as anorexic as a Giacometti sculpture, she’d left Renoir repro, mirror, and an overlooked bag of kibble on Ben’s porch.
Touching her warm cheeks now, she remembered overhearing one of those interim lovers say, “Despite the upheavals, whenever you enter a room, the place glows.” Today her cheeks glowed from walking against the wind. Better than from the occasional fevers.
“Ole Mister Death, he don’t have no mercy,” an elderly man in the waiting room announced to nobody in particular. Again Sheila thought of Bishop’s lines,
…It's just the common case;
there's nothing one can do.
“Death is built into our existence,” the man beside her said, “the way decade-old Peoples and Good Housekeepings are built into doctors’ offices…Not even an ancient Newsweek… What’re you reading?”
“Blue Highways. Not about bikers and blues singers on the road.”
“I know. Tom—my son—slid in the CD while we drove from Fort Bragg. William Least-Heat Moon’s got a great ear for regional accents.”
“Mmmm…” She unfolded a portfolio. “I must finish a layout—”
“Illustrator, mostly, now. Pays the bills… Had to Google this ‘glossy ibis,’ I’ve always wanted a live sighting, in Western Australia…The bird black from afar, close up you see the red-brown color, iridescent sheen on the wings…Author’s idea is to generate notions of antipodes, opposites, the only-apparently black-and-white, how life is not…” Embarrassed by having chattered on, as if coming on to him full force—or was he coming on to her, out of empathy? curiosity? loneliness? plain old lust?—she busied herself sketching. “Deadline tomorrow.” That word assumed new significance.
“I’m trying to meet a deadline on a book about alien species before—” he patted his pocket, “before—retirement.”
“Isn’t contemplating retirement mere intellectual exercise, neither of us expected to enjoy whatever’s supposed to be enjoyable about retirement?”
“True, no Golden Ponds for us.” He scribbled lines from Rumi in her sketchpad,
Every guest agrees to stay
three days, no more…
Time to go.
“Too soon for us to go!” she protested. “Your beard is… silvering, your cheeks weathered, but you’re still terrifically handsome—” She blushed. Such remarks to a stranger! Damned pill.
“You’re still beautiful—”
Your glasses are still on a shoelace around your neck.... She’d India-inked silver
interlopers in her hair, but couldn’t mitigate the weight-loss/wrinkle-gain equation.
Touching her arm, the man said, “Camus claimed ‘one cannot appreciate one’s life until one’s faced one’s death’.”
“I’ve not learned to appreciate …”
A nurse called, “Ms. Sheila—” The roomful must’ve heard Sheila’s unexpected sob. “Don’t worry, honey, they’ll give you anesthesia. Come along—”
She awoke on a gurney, and soon was wheeled back to the waiting room again beside that man. “They insist we lie around like zombies, to make sure nobody faints and sues.”
“S’okay, Sheila, I’ll catch you.”
Had they exchanged names?
A volunteer brought apple juice but both had already drifted back to a sort of sleep.
An hour later, Sheila asked the receptionist for the nearest bus stop.
“Post-procedural patients are not allowed to use public transportation! Or drive themselves! A reliable family member must take you home.”
“I’ve no ‘reliable family members’.”
“You shouldda arranged—”
“Wouldn’t trouble anyone, nobody knows I’m—under the weather.”
“Do stay out of this weather, dear!” As she smoothed out Sheila’s chart, ringing phones and flashing buttons distracted the receptionist.
A younger man appeared and glanced at her chart. Didn’t this constitute Invasion of Patient Privacy? “I’ll get them home, ma’am. Reliably. Her place is on our way.”
Hunting camouflage? Military fatigues? Anachronistic-hippie garb? Who—The man’s son? He hooked one arm under her elbow, the other under the older man’s, and marched them to the exit. An orderly waylaid them with wheelchairs.
“Don’t need—” Sheila and the man protested simultaneously.
“Free ride to the curb mandatory.”
The younger man disappeared, returned in a muddy gray jeep, helped Sheila from her wheelchair into the back seat. “Dad’s legs long, he’s gotta sit up front.”
“I hate to trouble—Our street’s torn up—”
“This Wrangler’s conquered plenty of rough terrain, ma’am, she’ll get you home.”
En route, she half-heard their talk of fishing for steelhead on Deschutes River, wherever that was. Did they catch-and-release? No grizzly downriver would be as restrained. Next, the wilds of the Carolinas, hunting expeditions, shotguns versus AK-47s. Lord, she’d hooked up with trigger-happy rednecks…
Speculating where the army might send him, the young man—Tom?—maneuvered around a ditch to park at her brownstone. The man asked, “Friday, here?”
“Oh….” Had she invited him for Friday, plus any wife? “Did I…say…my apartment number?”
“Penciled on your card.”
The young man took her elbow, retrieved her keys when she bent down to pick up an iridescent feather, propelled her two flights to her door. “Wish we could settle you in, ma’am, but gotta get Dad home, then myself to the bus.”
“Please, I didn’t catch your father’s name…”
“Amos, ma’am. He gave you his card.”
Nonplussed by the repeated ma’am, she managed, “Thank you, sir. Good holidays.”
“You too, ma’am. I can’t return soon unless… compassionate leave.”
Sheila added the pigeon feather to a bouquet of feathers in an antique milk-jug, then pulled up blankets on the sofa bed, and slept. Head clear, before painkillers made her groggy again she arranged her aquarelles, tackled the deceptively-black ibis on the overdue layout. That man –Amos?—had diverted her, she must make up for lost time. She completed the legs of the ibis, beige, then scanned and emailed her bird to the printers. One empty frame handy, the original of her ibis replaced Renoir’s lady. Finally she draped a shred of tinsel over last autumn’s cattails. As if tinsel could convey holiday spirit and keep cattail fluff from scattering around the apartment!
“Sensible” to have cleared and sold the house so the girls wouldn’t have this chore. “Sensible” this monthly rental, although brown, cream and off-white constituted the owners’ full palette. The kitchenette’s brown-and-beige patterned linoleum was, as the manager confided, “Useful for hiding dirt.” Not even a window-box garden, only a ledge on which to scatter crumbs for the sparrows and starlings.
The phone rang. “Amos Faulkier here. How d’you feel?”
“Oh!..Fine. Thanks for the ride…You?”
“A bit. You?”
“Too late…Too soon to hear.”
“Too late, too soon.”
“Did we mention a party?”
“My place’s dreary—”
“Someone on the other line—”
“Mine too, must run—”
Later she couldn’t remember who’d said what.
Friday morning a deliveryman buzzed.
“I haven’t ordered anything—”
He showed her the little envelope. “Enjoy your Schlumbergera! Amos Faulkier.”
Schlumbergera? Weird reptile? The man had mentioned alien species. What might jump out? She gingerly unwrapped gold ribbon from the florist’s carton, tied the ribbon around old cattails in Grandmother’s brass umbrella stand: Illusion of decoration.
The man had mentioned Heidegger, Sheila forgot why. Schlumbergera/Heidegger imperfect rhymes? She’d never dug German philosophers or politicians. If this Schlum- were another such, toss him. Philosophy anyway ungraspable.
Existence lives in paintbrushes… Reality is mopping spilled paint, milk, garbage. Time: in short supply. Divine Whatever preoccupied elsewhere. One of her fellow Birders would gladly inherit the low-maintenance plant.
Shedding possessions turned out simple as watching petals fall from overripe peonies. A future of leaving friends was awful to contemplate.
Friday evening Amos wore a tweed jacket with, yes, worn leather elbow patches,
khaki slacks and hiking boots as befitting the Environmental Sciences professor he turned out to be. No wonder he’d been so outgoing: presumably a teacher should be. He carried upstairs a knapsack, down sleeping bag, and wading boots. “Don’t want to leave them in the jeep. Later I’m off to look over a cabin my uncle is willing me, he’s 92.”
How soon will that cabin in turn become Tom’s legacy, Sheila wondered. How far along is Amos?
He extracted from his knapsack a recycled soda bottle – “Chivas Regal”— and little jars of smoked oysters, caviar, jams, pates, artichoke hearts. “Tom loaded me with bachelor fare. Can’t eat these alone.” He hung his parka on a peg. “You look spectacular!”
Tonight she wore her remaining dress, which for a decade she’d not been thin enough to wear: décolleté black velvet, black fishnet stockings and, though she didn’t expect anyone to find out, black lace bra, panties, and slip. Benjamin had called it her femme fatale outfit. A thought flashed: A femme now all too fatale, she’d leave instructions for the mortician to clothe her corpse in it, give whatever mourners a kick.
“Merry Christmas, Sheila!” Guests buzzed and trooped in bearing wine, salads, casseroles, little packets that went under the Christmas cactus, and as instructed, their own cushions to sit on. Sheila’s old classmate Matilda presented her with a long-promised homespun skirt, though now the fabric enveloped her like a cloak. Or a shroud. Over mulled wine Matilda exclaimed, “Haven’t seen you in that dress for years—You’ve lost lots of weight, haven’t you…But—” she added hastily, “you look heavenly!”
Amos murmured he had “little hope of heaven.”
“I’d like to hope for a heaven,” Sheila argued. “At least for those critters we’re working to save, a peaceable kingdom.”
“Critters live to kill each other,” Amos countered. “In their dreams, the fox pursues the rabbit, lion the antelope. Rabbit and antelope seem peaceful as they nibble away the landscape. Think what lambs and goats do. As for humans! Bless vultures, they don’t kill, only clean up other’s remains.”
“Fish eat fish,” Henry, a lawyer and birder, said. “And us if we fall in and drown.”
“Way to go!” said Matilda.
Amos blended in easily enough. Turned out he was a marine biologist but, in Tierra del Fuego during the annual Christmas week Audubon count there one year, he’d joined those birders. The wife whom he’d possibly mentioned at the doctors’ turned out to have died five years before.
Every guest took home some token: the Luna moth that had died on Sheila’s screen and she’d framed went to a budding lepidopterist; her trowel used in Jordan for an archaeologist; books and CDs all found takers. “Okay,” Henry said, “The firm could use the umbrella container. I’ll chuck those old cattails down the chute as I go.”
“We’ll pick fresh cattails tomorrow,” Amos said, whatever he meant by “we.”
His tastes she could only guess. He mentioned owning the same books as those on her shelf. Finally she handed him her CD of Dylan Thomas reading his poems.
Nobody wanted her bouquet of feathers.
After cleaning up from the party together, talking non-stop, Amos embraced her in the usual farewell-thanks-so-much-for-the-nice-party hug. This hug lasted. He extracted a little travel toothbrush from his knapsack, slipped into the bathroom. She slipped a painkiller in her mouth. Perhaps he did the same with his meds. Wordless, half-clothed, they fell into her bed, managing only desultory cuddling before falling asleep.
She awoke in the night with this near-stranger curled tightly around her. Suppose the doctors miscalculated or misled him, and he died in the night, here? Or she? Neither was yet, surely, that terminal—
No pussy-footing around words anymore. The artistic image of Death with his Careless Scythe had to be squarely visualized. Perhaps illustrated? Tomorrow…
She heard Amos sigh, felt his fingers smoothing her hair, then fell asleep again.
Still dark when she woke as both twins at once were recording on her answering machine. Anyone else she would have ignored. “I’m here—wait till I—”
“Big news!” Tillie, in real time now, exclaimed.
“Martin’s parents are renting a villa in La Jolla, a family reunion Christmas week,” Molly explained. “Perfect for us to get married! Gotta discuss what you’ve gotta do for the reception—I’ve a list—”
“I’m coming with Jonah,” Tillie broke in. “We’ll all be in the wedding.”
“Why not you two get married too?”
“Oh, we’d wait till after graduation,” Tillie said. “If—”
“If Jonah is really it,” Sheila said, “seize the day.”
“Since when were you so impulsive, Ma?” Molly asked. “Granted they’re already living together here weekends. Sorry, Ma, to shock you, but—”
“’Course not. Just that by June—” She’d not intended to relay her own news until the last, so to speak, minute, if at all. Afterwards the lawyer could contact them, fax copies of her signed will, mail letters she must get to writing. Meanwhile she’d not spoil her daughters’ happiness. “June’s far away.”
“Jonah and I are different,” Tillie said. “He’s so city-minded, business-oriented… I’m joining the Peace Corps.”
“My dream too…Was…Along with exploring Tasmania.”
Amos was saying something to her.
“Meanwhile—” Sheila said, “Tillie, I’ve met a young man about to be shipped overseas—Oh, already! Yesterday morning… BS in geology, aiming for a—What, PhD?...I think – Yes?…Yes. A mountain climber and kayaker like you. A what lieutenant?... First… You’re a good letter writer, Tillie, or rather emailer, he might like a pen pal—though probably has plenty of girls writing to him…Apparently not…APO something?... Email…something dot.com…So if—”
“Okay, give him my address. Hey, who’s there feeding you information?”
“Ummm… well…his father…”
“At this hour? Mother! Three a.m., here!”
“’S okay, Ma,” Molly said. “Google a plane reservation for L.A.X. right away.”
“I’ll try to come…”
“Only try? Ma! You’ll come! I’ve bought a gorgeous organdy. Pack your paints to do our portrait in wedding attire. Tell Daddy bring his tux. You bring summer cocktail dresses, a mother-of-the-bride formal.”
“My only dress is black… I’d have to find something new. Lost weight.”
“Lucky you!” The girls chorused.
“I’m shipping more furniture, silver, what’s left of the china, so don’t buy anything.”
“Reordering my environment. A craving for space….Here’s to beautiful weddings…”
Exhausted, she switched off the phone, lay back in bed. Amos hugged her. “You want a two-fer?”
“Gotta pack it in, as the girls would say. Yet all that shopping, traveling, monster airports, cross-country flights, shuttles…” And she didn’t admit dreading plane crashes.
“I’ll get you to the plane on time. Promise you’ll be back in a week? I could even escort you…”
She leaned over and kissed his brow. No way she’d shock future in-laws by inviting a strange man along. Anyway, he surely had holiday plans. And Benjamin would be there.
Amos fingered the black lace slip she was still wearing.
Neighbors overhead began their day with loud rock and children rampaging like elephants. She expected him to take off.
“Might I shower,” he asked, “unless you want to be first?”
“Clean towels on the shelf…Only old waffles in the freezer …Tea? Coffee?”
“Tea... Sometime I’ll make real waffles for you…For now, let’s get the hell out of town. Cabin’s in a marsh, I remember from childhood. Uncle Rob lends it to old-boy hunting and fishing buddies, but nobody this weekend. He swears everything’s in decent condition. If we can find it…Drizzling outside now, but it’ll clear.”
Amos, in sniper garb, hung last evening’s clothes in her closet, knocking over her half-dozen unfinished canvases she’d never be able to complete.
Disconcerting, this stranger presuming to arrange her calendar! As for the dangers of being outdoors in bad weather…Still, Sheila showered, pulled blue sweatpants and sweatshirt over long silk underwear, tied on sneakers. They made sandwiches, filled backpacks with extra socks, water bottles, party leftovers, the Scotch he’d barely sipped.
“Yes, Tom might like hearing from your Tillie.”
“He mustn’t mention my—situation,” Sheila urged. “The girls assume I’ll be working forever on one or another deadline—”
That word again. Merely mentioning work, however, energy returned. She tucked a small sketchbook and drawing pencils into her backpack. He tossed their gear onto the back seat of the jeep, revved the motor and gassed up for the three hours wherever they were heading.
“I’m organizing a collection of my articles on invasive marine pests,” he was saying, “such as the European green crab in Australian waters. Carcinus maenas…Karkinos. Greek for crab. Yes, ironic, now…You could illustrate it…”
“I always wanted to swim with the dugongs, snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, and—”
“But not off Darwin where the box jelly fish are literally lethal.”
“And I’d like to spot a Tasmanian tiger—”
“We’d have an interesting time looking… Supposedly extinct…And the waters around the island are apparently alive with mini-critters—Let’s think about all this…”
The Metropolitan Opera matinee came on, Tristan and Isolde. At the entre-acte he said, “Let’s forget ill-fated lovers,” and slipped into the CD player the Dylan Thomas disc, three times replayed “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
They left highways, secondary roads, and reached the end of a dirt road abutting a marsh. Deer leapt from the bushes and, snorting, disappeared into the woods. Birds exploded from everywhere. Sheila inhaled the damp air fragrant with pine and bayberry, and buttoned her parka.
“You don’t want to muddy up those sneakers.” Amos extracted a smaller pair of wading boots.
Amazing, a pair to fit me, she thought. Of course, his late wife’s boots…
Shouldering packs, they set off through the tufts of eelgrass and cattails onto a beach of spongy sand and mud. Fragrance now of…marsh gas. Vociferous Vs of geese flew overhead. “Strange angels,” Sheila said, picking up a shed feather, twig of blue spruce, one cattail. Amos led the way to a cove full of small diving ducks, white with jet black heads, and scribbled down notes. He pointed with his binoculars past the ducks, to coots moving as if snared in one invisible seine. “See beyond—”
See beyond, indeed! Rain was seeping into their parkas. Her pack heavier, fatigue draining her veins, the borrowed boots rubbed her heels, new-born blisters hurt. The ghost of the previous owner taking revenge? Ghosts of late wives could be fearsome.
“Those waders belonged to one of my favorite grad students.”
“Consorting with grad students happens with professors, especially single ones, nobody cradle-robbing.” Sheila hadn’t meant to sound peevish or tactless. No point in possessiveness about anything or anyone anymore. Unusual jealousy nonetheless welled up.
“He returned to Arizona, left his waders,” Amos explained.
Sheila felt even more embarrassed, her heels hurting too much to feel relief.
Whatever am I doing out in ever-wetter wetlands with this man? But in a figurative swamp is where most affairs end up. Soon so will this— mini-fling.
They circled around the marshes, planning to loop back to the car. Behind them, however, tide was creeping over the beach. “All that rain, full moon somewhere, neap tide—” he said. “Ridiculous to be caught out here…”
“How about along the riverbank?” A mistake, or was it? They followed it through scraggly cedars toward a ramshackle pier, came flush against a high chain-link fence. Tide by now completely cutting off their retreat, no key for the lock, the only option was to climb it. “How to fit the toes of these boots—” She’d not admit her fear of heights.
With the can-opener blade of his Swiss Army knife, Amos pried a top loop of the thick wires holding the fencing to the rail. He unraveled the wire and pulled the sides apart, creating a gap to scramble through. “My first job was teaching science in a rough neighborhood,” he explained, answering her unvoiced concern about the origin of his skills. “The boys taught me. Some were certified juvenile delinquents.”
The wooden cabin was set on cinderblocks three feet above the ground. Two boat trailers held skiffs under tarpaulins. Plastic floats hung from an airy architecture of chicken-wire crab pots stacked against the back wall. Narrow high windows, shuttered, probably the cabin doubled as a duck blind…They searched under sills and eaves for a key. Remarking again about skills learned while teaching, Amos slid a blade into the lock, forced back the spring bolt and push open the door, dislodging festoons of spider webs. After opening shutters, they lowered their packs onto an overturned green canoe inside, themselves on a crate.
“Thank God for Scotch.” He unscrewed the lid and held the soda bottle out for her.
“I don’t usually…” Her teeth chattering, she stuck her wintry bouquet into an empty beer bottle, and in the dim light looked around. Seaweed-webbed crab traps, nets, a broom, rods, oars, paddles, canvas cots, decoys, bumpers, buoys. What good any life jackets and life-preservers now?
Amos shook the Coleman lanterns. “Out of fuel.” He produced his key ring holding a small penlight. “No telling how long the batteries last in these silly things. Heavy-duty flashlight back in the jeep. You distracted me.”
“Pain distracts…” she began, then busied herself arranging things from her damp knapsack on the overturned canoe. By unspoken agreement, neither mentioned illness. Her present pains were in her heels. She removed boots and sopping socks, and inspected three blisters. He extracted a small plastic pouch from his backpack, and taking her cold feet into his lap, dressed them with ointment, then Band-Aids, rubbed her feet until the warmth flowed upward, then as if she were a child, pulled on her clean pair of socks. Her tears welled at his simple gesture.
“Even when the tide ebbs we’d have trouble making it back to civilization before dark,” he said. “Any pressing engagements? Christmas shopping?”
“I sent everyone subscriptions to National Geographic.”
“I took Tom to our bank, added his name to the house deed, signed forms so every month money goes into his account toward his master’s degree. GI Bill should help. Ordered him sci-fi books, geology and geophysics journals, lifetime subscriptions.”
Military service hardly ensures longevity… “You really are—” she almost said preparing to die, instead managed “sensible.” Trying to be sensible in the moment, Sheila inspected a potbellied stove. “But what fuel—”
“A baggie of charcoal in my knapsack, and look—” He stood in the doorway shaking insects from a tarpaulin covering a woodpile, then laid a fire in the stove, struck a match to it. “Rain’s let up. Need to pee?”
“While you were tearing the fence apart…”
She spread the dishtowel over a crate, and, hands shaking from cold, arranged smoked oysters on black bread. “I forgot cups....”
“Our germs are environmentally-friendly. Scotch is germicidal, good for the heart…You’re thawing my heart after its long sojourn in the freezer. Your heart?”
She wanted to say, Thaw mine too, please. Or something equally flirtatious, but her mouth was full of smoked oysters. How can one decipher the inner life even of those with whom one spends much of a life… If she were to sketch him, would that reveal more than surfaces? Here they were, ostensibly strangers, who in the compression of time, knew each other deeply. Terrible cliché, also terribly possible. As if from inside an aquarium, they watched curtains of water pour from the roof over the windows.
“Dark early at the winter solstice…We can boil rainwater for the tea bags,” he was saying. “Don’t you need a sip of Scotch to warm you?”
“Mostly need you—”
This time his mouth was full of smoked oysters. “We’ll save the tea for breakfast…”
At some point, rain stopped, the full moon shone through cabin cracks and windows. By the tardy first light, the shore remained solid and dark. The pier was paper-thin, as if stretched between pencil shafts over crumpled foil, and the heron on a piling an unseasonable mosquito on a matchstick. Only with the sun would anything out assume substance.
Sunrise illuminated the cabin: she found her sketchbook, burrowed for pencils. When she looked up, Amos was writing in a notebook.
They reached her apartment, threw muddy clothes into the washer-dryer, showered together, heated canned lentil soup, contemplated her unfinished canvases, and toasted with the scotch which they still never got around to finishing. More lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem resounded:
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so.
Sorting the clean dry laundry, she found their socks, shirts, sweatpants and underwear entangled with each other, and burst into tears.
“What’s wrong?” Amos asked in alarm. “Pain?”
“It’s only—forgive my sentimentality—I’m happy—”
He scooped her up, and carried her to bed.
At dawn, going to her computer, he began checking the Internet for domestic flights to L.A.X., then after New Year’s, by Quantas on to Sydney.
Sheila contemplated her unfinished canvases. Thank heavens for insomnia. Let planes crash, tides rise, Tasmanian tigers prowl among the pines, box jellyfish undulate in the waters off Darwin.
Elisavietta Ritchie's fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, photographs, and translations from Russian and French have appeared in numerous publications including Poetry, The American Scholar, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, National Geographic, New York Quarterly, Confrontation, Press, New Letters, Kalliope, Nimrod, Canadian Women's Studies, Calyx, Maryland Poetry Review, Iris; anthologies including When I'm An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple; If I Had My Life To Live Over I Would Pick More Daisies; The Tie That Binds; If I Had A Hammer; Grow Old Along With Me / The Best Is Yet To Be; Generation To Generation; Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend; and many others. For more information, visit her website.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: It came all of a piece, then much tinkering. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem I read/reread about the same moment. All fiction including the characters. None based on anyone I know. What are real are the wetlands, though the wetlands and cove surrounding us are not quite like those in the story, except for the wildlife. And I do know what medical waiting rooms are like. And how a woman’s career/job/profession can be denigrated by thoughtless remarks, though this is not what launched the story.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did that happen?
It just happened.
1) A few years ago in the attic among her treasure a notebook of my haiku-like poems she had written down from what I had spoken, in English and in Russian; Mainly, I was blessed by this Babushka, 1933 émigré from Leningrad; she lived with us, and although her English and French were perfect, with me she spoke only Russian, and had me reading Russian picture books for children; a Grandmama from Kansas City who not only had McGuffie’s Reader but all the St. Nicolas magazines my mother had kept as a child; a mother who preferred Keats and Shelley and the French poets, and was horrified that my Russian émigré father (whose English was perfect and he learned a bunch of other languages) loved to recite not only Kipling but Robert W. Service—so at school instead of writing a paper on Keats or Byron or Shakespeare I shocked both my mother and the teacher by choosing to write on Service). (Thus later I was drawn to the French writers who scorned the ivory tower and were engage dans la vie) (as were the poets/writers/ playwrights in the Far East who were in trouble with their governments and turned to poetry because the censors tended to scorn it—but then, in the USSR a poem could land a poet in jail/gulag or exile).
2) About age four I wrote “a book”—but the writing was illegible/unreadable/ undecipherable until my mother held it up to a mirror. [Later when my third child was having trouble reading and writing, letters reversing themselves, etc., I was able to help until at age ten suddenly everything straightened out of its own accord. And when as a poet-in-the-schools I encountered in a Montessori school up the road a couple of bright boys who at ten still could not write, I had the hard-won patience to work with them one on one, letter by letter, week after week, until at the end of the year they could write.)
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: Process? I write. And rewrite. Depends. Poems and stories usually come full blown, it is just a matter of filling in the interstices and writing and rewriting and rewriting—making changes even after they are in print. An article for the paper of course demands a different way of going about it.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why?
A: Which one of many? What day of the week? Living in the flesh or in my mind? Kingsolver I like. Allende. Marquez. Camus (for me he is immortal). As Chekhov is immortal. Stanley Kunitz, another immortal. Arnost Lustig. Romain Gary. Brodsky. Akhmatova. Lermontov. Pushkin. All are alive in my mind. A bunch of Indonesian poets. And I’ve discovered –
Now much of what I read are manuscripts submitted anonymously (though as the mail drop/pumpkin I know the authors’ names) to Washington Writers’ Publishing House, and we have published some wonderful writers of whom you may not have heard—David Ebenbach, Hilary Tham, Melanie Hatter, Gretchen Roberts-Shorter, David Taylor, Elizabeth Bruce, Catherine Kimrey, this last year Kathleen Wheaton, and currently I am reading a manuscript of short stories by a Vietnamese émigré Khanh T. Ha.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: What day of the week? What hour of the day or night?
Among the current manuscripts I am reworking are
1) the 50+ new poems that have come since Tiger Upstairs on Connecticut Avenue went to press last April/May, came out in June. Tentative title of new collection: LIONS IN THE WINGS. Most too new to be submitted around, but a handful accepted individually;
2) a bunch of short stories in a collection of short fiction, some of which have been published, some always needing tinkering;
3) THE CALDECOTT CYCLES, a novel in verse started in the 1990s and just resuscitated;
4) GLAD I GAVE TO ART MY ALL: POEMS IN THE VOICES OF THE ARTIST, HIS WIFE, HIS MISTRESS, HIS MODELS, HIS DOG. Most have been published individually and reprinted in my recent books, scattered among other poems;
5) flash fictions now and then;
6) and then whatever comes along. Just in print this week are a couple of reviews of two books whose authors asked me to review them…
7) but right now, late as it is, I have to go over the preface of a 500-page memoir long in progress and just “finished” this evening, by my husband, Clyde Farnsworth (whose name may be familiar if you read the New York Times until about 2000).