A Flash Fiction Tasting:
The Wit, Whimsy and Humanity of Donia Carey
Table of Contents
Six Hundred and Five Words
The Blindness of Gazelles
Birthday on the Hill
Black Forest at the Styx
Keep Your Slingshot Loaded
The Rat and I: A History
Trouble in Church
The Bereavement Group
Right now, outside my office window, I see two men doing what I could never do. They are standing on top of a scaffold about twenty feet tall. It is propped against a kind of ventilation chute. The scaffold and chute are on the peaked roof of a building perhaps fifty feet high. They are climbing from the scaffold onto the chute, perching on corners. The sight of them up there makes my palms itch. I couldn’t do it. Not in a million years.
Feeling both inadequate and masochistic, I slouch at my desk and imagine more things I could never do, and the list goes on and on, like an insomniac’s sheep jumping a fence: Fly an airplane; climb a rock face; clean chimneys; dive off a bridge; pose in the nude; eat a pound of liver; tell off my boss…. I couldn’t be a window washer or take a mouse out of a mousetrap; couldn’t chop off my leg if it was pinned beneath a beam or caught inside the crumpled chassis of my automobile and I was in danger of bleeding, freezing, starving!
“Maybe you could, maybe you would,” says a voice. It catches me off guard although I recognize it—my mother’s. She often speaks to me this way. Damned annoying, especially since she’s been dead these thirteen years.
“Could do, would do--what?” I snap back at her.
“All sorts of things. When you have to. You’d be surprised.”
“Hah. Next I suppose you’ll be telling me I can fly.”
“Could, if you had wings.”
“But I don’t; and wouldn’t if I did.”
“So take a plane.”
“ You know that heights make me dizzy. And what if the plane were to crash?”
“Why, you’d just bail out.”
“What a terrifying thought!”
“Pfui!” she spat. “ Are you my daughter or not? And you’re supposed to be so smart--you even went to college. It would be less scary than taking a final exam! Not even as bad as climbing a mountain, which might take days--plenty of time to have second thoughts; make false moves; get eaten by bears or trip on a root and disappear down a crag. But jumping out of a plane—nothing to it!”
I hear her snap her fingers. “You could do that in a moment; yes, you, YOU, with your fear of heights, your shaky nerves, your weak arm muscles--I tell you that any daughter of mine will jump with the best of them!”
The sound of her voice always makes me want to be somewhere else. I try to tune it out right now, but it gets louder and louder—until gradually its timbre changes, grows deeper, and it becomes the voice of an army recruitment officer. It’s a very persuasive voice, and before I can blink my eyes, I have enlisted, passed the physical, gone through training, and--presto!--here I am, standing alongside the nicest bunch of fellows you could hope to meet, a half mile up in the blue yonder, waiting to make my first solo jump.
I look around me at the faces that have become so familiar during the last punishing months, all of them excited, some of them also scared. They are all tall, muscular, and handsome, and have a devil-may-care look—these flyers of and beyond my dreams.
I’ve stepped into my chute and am concentrating on holding the posture they stressed during training: very straight, both knees locked. Otherwise, they told us, you could break a leg. We are all hooked up to a static line, and when we jump, our chutes will open automatically.
The sergeants have drilled and drilled us relentlessly. They tried to scare those of us who weren’t scared, and to reduce to jelly, those of us who were already scared. The point is to be able to operate automatically, even under the utmost fear and pressure. In real combat, you might be jumping into barbed wire or into enemy fire; so you had to do all the right things without thinking.
Howie is the first to jump; one moment he is here and the next, he is gone. I am seventh in line. I only hope I won’t scream or faint or lose control of my bladder—or worse. What could be worse? All three, maybe. Then they’ll say, “Just like a woman.”
The waiting is hard. I try some yoga breathing, but feel constrained by the weight of my equipment. I go over the instructions, like a litany: stand straight, keep your knees locked…. when the punch line of a stupid joke comes into my mind and I begin to giggle:
“Did you jump?”
“…. Well…just a little.”
I am still laughing as Nelson jumps and it is my turn, and I am out, just like that, hurtling into nothingness. I count: one thousand one, one thousand two…. At one thousand four I raise my eyes to see if my chute has opened properly. It hasn’t. It has done what they call a cigar roll, which happens when the heat from friction keeps the parachute from expanding normally.
My insides feel as though they’re about to fall out, but my fingers reach automatically for the clip on my chest. I release the auxiliary chute and feed it out carefully, meantime counting steadily…. one thousand nine…and I look up. Above me, I see the parachute billowing out, and I am floating. God! Can I even try to describe the sensation? The absolute stillness, the sky an electric blue counterpointed by the white of a few scattered clouds—my parachute and I part of the calm magical universe, time expanding around me in a blue moment.
I look down, to see the earth perhaps sixty feet below. I am in luck; beneath me lies a tranquil pasture—no trees, no power lines. I angle my knees so that I land on my left side, and don’t look down anymore. I feel the earth under my left foot, my calf and thigh, then my shoulder, and I spring up and step out of my chute before it can drag me along. A perfect landing.
As I gather the folds of nylon around me, I see another parachute being swept along on a mad ride though the meadow. A small figure tumbles behind it. It’s my mother, and I hear her laughter on the wind.
Six Hundred and Five Words
I am not a man; I am a logophiliac. My tongue itches to twitch. I spout nonsequiturs, anecdotes, snatches of memories and songs. When silence threatens, I recite the names of the Seven Dwarfs, U.S. presidents (in order), recount The Twelve Days of Christmas, The Wreck of the Hesperus, the entire Bible backwards, parables and taradiddles.
A blabbermouth, some have called me. A stifling bore. Friends have pleaded—at first out of love--politely, patiently; then impatiently, with clenched teeth and red faces--at last to explode: Will You please SHUT THE FUCK UP!! Many have deserted, fled to their hovels and mountain caves.
I frequent shopping malls, bus stations and supermarkets, seek the kindness of strangers in grocery store aisles, movie lines, and at gas-station pumps. These encounters are brief and unsatisfying.
I spent years consulting shrinks, priests, gypsies, necromancers, Drs. Phil and Laura, bartenders, dog trainers, derelicts and gravediggers, without success. Physicians and psychiatrists offered remedies. They leapt to sew up my lips, tie my tongue, bash me with electrodes, banish me to Elba, even to perform a memory-removal operation (pretty safe surgery these days, they said).
My roommate mimes that I am silent in sleep. He spends his days shuffling from room to room of our cramped bower, tethered to earphones. He utters no word, only hums. Thus have we co-existed.
Here’s a secret I have revealed to no one: I have never kissed another human being, except for my mother and various aged great-aunts, in my entire life. Those kisses were so long ago, I only remember the clack of dentures and the cloying scent of heliotrope. Yet I cherish those kisses.
Why has no one kissed me, or been kissed by me? I offer clues: My mouth, manly and firm-lipped though it be, is always open, its corners foaming words; an overflowing sundae of blatherings and wisdom, an erupting Vesuvius of rumbles.
I felt this loss of human contact keenly, and wept in my lonely bed. But I became inured to sadness, accepted it as my lot in life. Yet hope does spring eternal, and I sometimes imagined loving and being loved.
One night, months ago, unable to sleep, I sought companionship in the streets of lower Manhattan. Passing through the hushed financial district, I set off toward Chinatown, keeping up a lively monologue. A carrot-colored head of hair, followed by a freckled face, peeped out of a nearby dumpster and hailed me. My god! It was the legendary Pompom Fang, elusive as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Only a handful of people around New York had ever spotted her. She beamed her green eyes on me; even her freckles gave me their full attention.
“You! Eugene! You have problem. I have answer.”
I felt giddy as her eyes pierced my soul.
“You talk too much. Now you stop. Beginning now, you have limit: 605 words per day.” She paused. “You go over limit, you pay consequences.”
Ah, the catch. Mesmerized, I waited like a prisoner for his sentence.
“606 words—you die!” She dove into the dumpster and disappeared.
An offer of salvation or doom; but Pompom had imbued me with some of her strength.
The next day I husband out words as a skinflint measures out coins. Subtracting sleep, I get 37.13 words per hour. I succeed, determination enhanced by my Sword of Damocles.
Now, happiness invades me. Soon, Jessica, whom I long admired from afar, shall become my wife. We stand at the altar, surrounded by stephanotis and roses. The minister asks the fateful question and waits for my “I do.”
But I have used up my 605 words.
I confess that purple was not my first love. Until I was five, it was pink I desired, and I was precise as to its exact hue: Not the Pepto-Bismol pink of bubblegum, the grayish pink of oft-laundered baby blankets or the pallid pink of my knees after the scabs had fallen off—no, the pink I most eschewed--robust yet subtle and alive—was the pink inside of a bunny rabbit’s’ ears. Well, that was my pink period.
Then came fickle years: a flirtation with yellow, a fling with red, a long-term dalliance with blue, a dirge of black.
Not until the psychedelic Seventies did my true color manifest itself. Purple, purple, always purple. Purple beckoned everywhere I looked (had I been blind before?)—it was high in the city skies, in the greengrocers’ racks, in the pigeons on the roofs, the dark lilacs in people’s gardens and the weeds in vacant lots, the very stones in the gutter. Purple in puddles of oil, in the eyes of passers-by.
I decked--nay, drenched--myself in the color. Oh the underwear I sought out, the scarves I flung, the amethyst baubles I dangled, the lips, the eyelids, the lacquered nails, the hair! My eyes mirrored the shade, and purple bounced back at them in gratitude, showing them a violescent world.
Then in the bath one morning, soaping my body behind the orchid-patterned shower curtain, I noticed a palm-sized purple mark embracing the left side of my waist. Somehow, ink from my fountain pen must have leaked onto my skin. I applied my washcloth to the mark, but scrub as hard as I dared, it remained a stubborn purple. Ah, a bruise—I must have bumped myself without realizing it; so I paid it no mind.
That evening, as I slipped into my mauve peignoir, I found a matching purple mark on the other side of my waist. Peculiar, but not upsetting, and I went to sleep to the strains of “Purple Rain.”
Brushing my teeth the next morning, I looked at my tongue in the bathroom mirror—it had turned a dark purple, not unattractive. My lips, too, seemed to have a purple hue, and I hadn’t yet applied my lipstick. I looked down at my feet: the toes were purple, the ankles likewise. I traced the purple as far as my knees. My thighs were still pale. Hurriedly, I dressed for work, pulling on my magenta tights. Soon, I thought, I would not need them.
Monday, and at the office, the Druids were out of their cubicles, still guzzling their morning coffee and dunking their morning doughnuts, discussing their blind dates and their hangovers. What a frumpy bunch, like a passel of starlings. One of them looked up and squawked out, “What’s that purple mark on your forehead?” She snickered. The rest of the drab sisterhood looked up, hoping for excitement. “Yeah, and on your ears, too!”
I gave them a purple stare and walked past. In the privacy of my cubicle, I took out my hand mirror. Already my face was turning the rich color of a summer plum and my neck was marbling with deep, dark streaks. My hands were darkening as well, the palms tinctured in a subtle shade of heliotrope. I was enchanted. I couldn’t wait until the day was over and I could completely disrobe and admire my luscious chromatic body in my mahogany pier glass. For I had loved purple, and now purple was returning my love.
Twelve minutes to go before NNM International kicked off its annual meeting, and this year Elsie was the keynote speaker. She’d reached the pinnacle!
But Elsie was too scared to bask in her success. An old familiar need was beginning to stretch its greedy tentacles inside her again. Like a buried virus, it had emerged, this time even stronger than before. As she mingled with the others drinking coffee outside the hotel’s main ballroom, Elsie accepted their congratulations in a trance, her mind repeating a mantra to block out her feelings of doubt and unworthiness.
Feeling agitated, Elsie managed to slip away from the other members, telling them that she’d left her notes in her car. Instead, she sped toward the Ladies’ Room, a dark secret smoldering within the depths of her handbag. She flung open the door and entered in such a rush that she nearly tripped over the washroom attendant who sat sour-faced in the corner, folding towels embossed with the hotel crest.
Was she imagining it, or was the woman giving her the fish-eye? Elsie felt guilt swim in her face, and waves of nausea minnowed through her body. What if she were found out? Her banishment would be swift and total, her shame more than she could bear. Yet at this moment, the immediate force of her need canceled out her fears.
Elsie fled into a booth and bolted the door. Safe now, she took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and unsnapped her bag. Reaching in with trembling hands, she pulled out the object of her obsession. Sensing release so near, her heart ricocheted. Drool ran down her chin as she struggled to tear open the covering of the jumbo-sized package. At last she was able to part the inner wrapper and expose its melting treasure.
She crammed and pushed the whole thing into her mouth, her tongue avidly sucking and slurping the sticky sweet residue. All caution forgotten, Elsie moaned like a cat in heat and she let herself sink deep into a tsunami of lust. When she resurfaced, satiated, she let out a deep sigh. The consummation of her desire had left her spent and breathless. Nearly blacked out, she leaned back against the cold marble wall of the booth and waited for her pulse to slow down.
A squishing sound raised the hairs on her neck; but it was only the washroom attendant mopping the floor. Elsie glanced at her watch: ten o’clock. The meeting would be starting, and she was to speak right after the opening address. She flushed the toilet and left the booth, trying to look nonchalant. To calm herself, she repeated the first lines of her speech, “How I lost two hundred pounds in just three years through ‘Nosh No More, International.’”
Attempting to regain her composure, Elsie forced herself to walk slowly toward the lobby door. Like an evil jack-in-the-box, the attendant popped out and barred the way, mop brandished before her like a lance. The blood sloshed in Elsie’s head and her whole body went slack.
NNM was clever—they had to be, to have beat the heavy competition in the weight-loss market. That woman was one of their spies; why hadn’t she realized it earlier? And she had the goods on Elsie, ready to report her to the authorities immediately.
Oh, why had she been such a fool, put herself into such danger? Had that moment of ecstasy been worth the loss of everything for which she’d worked so hard? Especially since she knew that in a little while her stomach would be demanding more, goading her to transgress again.
Elsie faced her accuser, ideas scrabbling in her brain like mice. She might be able to save herself yet. Maybe the woman would accept a bribe—she probably worked at minimum wage; those fancy hotels were notoriously cheap with their help. And whatever Nosh No More offered this stoolie, Elsie could top it.
She opened her bag and grabbed her wallet, holding it out in front of her and offering it to the attendant like a cross to a vampire. The woman scowled and batted it away as though swatting a mosquito. She squinted at Elsie, placed the mop back into the bucket and thrust her hand into an apron pocket. Elsie reared back, eyes blinded by panic.
“You have chocolate smeared all over your face,” the matron said, and handed Elsie a towel.
The Blindness of Gazelles
Adam guides me through the darkening August world of my own back yard. He’s a biologist and he’s tall and strong and intense. That’s what I know about him for sure.
A wave—is it love?—engulfs me when I’m with him. It silences any questions I might have and stills any doubts that loom on the horizon like distant sand shoals.
I have just promised to marry him.
“Are you a gazelle in the woods?” he asks.
My breath falters. “I don’t know.”
He looks into my eyes and smiles. “If you don’t know, then you’re not,” he answers.
One moment Adam’s hand clasps mine and the next moment he’s disappeared. Bereft, I glance around and see nothing but a scurrying mouse.
A rustle sounds from above and he appears high in the branches of our old magnolia.
Strange creatures-- possums transformed into fairytale monsters--blink down at me. Adam shimmies down the trunk, something glimmering in his hand. He opens his fingers. “Sir Warty Bliggens,” he bows, and sets the quivering toad onto the grass.
Silently, our hands clasped tight, we follow my street to the park where flotillas of moths circle the mercury lights. I tremble. Neither snakes nor mice nor flying bats scare me, but I am terrified of the fluttering wings of moths and large butterflies, imagining them battering against my skin and entering my body’s portals.
We reach the light. Adam plucks an enormous brown moth out of the air and presents it to me like a flower.
My pulse quickening, I fight my revulsion and force myself to hold onto the insect. Agitated, its surprising velvety wings beat up and down. Adam moves his hand over it, and the moth stills in my hand. My heart stills too.
“Look at those markings—aren’t they beautiful? He’s a Cecropia, the animal I study…. ah, but you already knew that.”
Adam bends to kiss me and the Cecropia flies away, leaving my hand empty and cold.
Stella took the pins out of her mouth. “Because a man put a curse on my father,” she said. “That’s the reason none of us is married.”
Anna stood on a kitchen chair, the hem of her skirt half pinned up. It was a hand-me-down, and Stella had been shortening it, fastening the hem with straight pins. She paused to look over at her friend Sophie, Anna’s mother, whose head was bent over a plucked chicken, examining some eggs she’d found inside it.
“You might recall him…the man with the cross-eyed wife? He had a grudge against my father—there was some jealousy too. That happens when you’re in business. Especially keeping a saloon, like my father did, God rest his soul.”
Anna giggled, and Stella said, “Don’t think just because a man serves drinks he can’t be good and God-fearing, young lady,” and nearly jabbed the girl with a pin. “Godfather to forty-eight children, just to show how highly people regarded him. Some felt slighted, he made some enemies…and this one man…now it comes back, he was one of the Wasko brothers….”
She tried to get Sophie’s attention again, but she just nodded without taking her eyes away from the chicken. “Yes, Stefan Wasko, I knew you’d remember. He had too much to drink one night and my father refused to serve him. He got mad and, right in front of all the customers, he said these words--I’ll never forget them if I live to be a hundred--“As God is my witness, I curse you, Jan Hlva! May your daughters never marry; may they go childless to their graves!”
This was Anna’s favorite part, the moment Stella proclaimed the curse, eyes raised piously, her index finger pointing toward the cracked ceiling as if summoning God to share her outrage.
But Anna’s father told his daughter the whole thing was a lot of malarkey, and that the reason none of those four preachy do-gooders had ever married was that any man with half a brain in his head knew enough to stay clear of them and their righteousness. Their old man didn’t stick around either, did he; which Anna thought was a mean thing to say. It wasn’t as though their father had chosen to be caught in the middle of a brawl and get his head bashed in.
Birthday on the Hill
Basha lived over her family’s storefront funeral parlor on Main Street. Her father’s business shared the ground-floor space with a saloon where the factory workers drank beer after their shifts. Sometimes she played hopscotch on the sidewalk in front, and if the men were in a good mood they gave her pretzels.
The old woman in the back courtyard kept chickens, chopping their heads off with an axe. Except for the pigeons and sparrows, these were the only birds around.
In Basha’s primer she found stories about other children with names like Sally and Susan and Billy. There were pictures of them playing in sandboxes in gardens with flowers where brightly colored birds flew around or cooled off in birdbaths. Basha thought this must have been In Olden Times, before the land was all paved over with cement and tar.
Besides the hearse, her father had a big black car. Basha longed to go on rides, to see the land beyond the town, but he hated driving and only used the car for business or errands. Her mother didn’t drive. Sometimes Basha got to go along with her father when he drove her mother home from work, and then she saw the sun setting over green hills beyond the factories and the river. They didn’t seem real. How she wished they could drive on and on, way up into those hills.
After church one week she got a surprise. Her mother was in the kitchen preparing Sunday dinner. She was making noodles for the soup, and she said, “Ed, it’s such a nice day—why don’t you take Basha along with you when you drive to the cemetery!”
On Sunday mornings her father drove to the cemetery to look over the graves and check the condition of the temporary markers he put up until the permanent stones were ready. Basha had never been to the cemetery, and she was excited. Also, she loved being alone with her father, even though he didn’t talk much. But he liked to sing in the car, songs like “You Are My Sunshine” or "Shuffle off to Buffalo," and Basha sang along with him.
The river divided the town, and they drove over the bridge and toward the hills. The cemetery was way out, on top of the highest hill. The air began to smell different, sweet and sharp, and it felt cooler. As they approached the gates, Basha saw a flash of wings, and a red bird flew through the trees. She couldn’t believe how beautiful it all was, more beautiful than the pictures in her book.
They drove along the cemetery path. Her father told her the cemetery was new, only a few years old, and that it had been a cow pasture before the church had bought the land. A few gravestones stood along the old stonewall that had kept the animals in. The rest of the graves were scattered along the hillside, low stones mostly, with a few fancier ones mixed in, angels with outspread wings, or marble crosses. Her father parked his car along the far edge of the cemetery, next to a little tin-roofed house.
An old man came out. Basha recognized him. He was the gravedigger, and she’d seen him in church, and at her house after a funeral, when he’d come in for a drink with her father. He wore overalls, had grizzled white hair and a face worn like wind-scoured rock. His voice was loud and hoarse, worn out from shouting over the wind on his hill. Basha wondered if he lived in the little house, and did he sometimes sleep outside? The graves would make cozy beds, and the tombstones fine headboards
His name was Mr. Koval, and today he was holding a bunch of carrots. He handed them to Basha, like a bouquet. He grew vegetables in a small plot in a corner of the cemetery, the biggest vegetables Basha had ever seen. Her father used to bring them home, carrots and beets and parsley. Mr. Koval’s face was ridged with smiles. “Well, Basha! I am so happy you have come to see me! Did you know that today is my birthday?”
Did people that old still have birthdays? And birthday cakes? But she said, “Happy birthday!” and wondered if she should sing.
“Wait!” said Mr. Koval, as if he’d just thought of something, and he clumped over to the little house and went inside. Soon he emerged with a bottle of whiskey, a small bottle of root beer and a package of Drake’s Cake. “Now we celebrate!” he shouted.
He opened the root beer with a jackknife hanging on his belt, gave the bottle to Basha, then passed the whiskey to her father, who bent his head back and took a swallow. In the meantime, Mr. Koval slit open the cellophane and cut the cake into three pieces. They all sat down on the stonewall and Basha sang “Happy Birthday.” It was the best day of her life so far.
Black Forest at the Styx
So I’m gorging on Black Forest cake topped with crème brulée in the Styx café, when this wombat, soused on elderberry wine, comes plopping over to me, pushes aside my Psyche knot and gives me a nip on my earlobe.
“Buzz off!” says I. “Go back to that exotic southern island where you wombats belong.”
“Belong?” he echoes, and he gives me a bear hug…
“Fresh!” I yells, and I lands him such a clout in the belly he falls snout over paws. But then he picks himself up and wobbles on one knee. I gotta laugh cause he looks like Al Jolson singing Mammy, but I hafta admire him too cause that’s not an easy pose for a wombat to hold. So he’s looking into my baby blues with those sexy wombat eyes, and he’s singing, “You belong to me, I belong to you”
“Boy,” thinks I, “this kid’s been hit by Cupid’s arrow all right.” Pretty soon he’s singing his little heart out. He sure does beat the usual clientele at this watering hole--his voice velvety, his belly too (and me with my secret weakness for furry bellies), and he’s no slouch at dishing out the crème brulée--so by last call what’s a girl to do?
I takes his offer to get hitched and just like that we’re on an ocean cruise and honeymooning! Before you can say so long Styx it’s bon voyage and we’re waving on the deck of the Staten Island Ferry and then it’s crème brulée and nonstop Cooper’s Stout happily ever after on that fair southern isle where the frangipani blow.
Dale Osborne. Once he’d been a hot-shot editor, a name to be reckoned with, whose power and influence were legendary in the publishing world. Any author he took on had an instant ticket to fame.
Now he was ninety-four years old and his brain was pickled by alcohol, but in deference to who he had been, the staid Boston publishing house he’d served for so many years gave him his own office with a view of the Common. And they gave him me, a half-time secretary.
At our first meeting, he greeted me with enthusiasm, creakily rising from his chair to pump my hand. He had a toad-like head on a squat neck, and his face was red, with prominent veins around the nose. But if eyes can be said to twinkle, his did.
He spoke and I had to move closer to his desk to understand his Boston Brahmin intonation. It’s a language that’s been dying out, though you’ll still find pockets of it places like Long Island’s North Shore or Newport. He sat behind a polished mahogany desk, completely cleared except for a notebook and pencil. He rubbed his hands together with the glee of a little boy who’s just received his first baseball glove. “You’ve come just in time,” he said, handing me the notebook. We have work to do.”
The editor had rooms at the Ritz-Carleton, a landmark hotel facing the Boston Gardens. A stone's throw from his office, it was a pleasant stroll through the Gardens and across Commons, which contained a historic burial ground. He was bubbling with excitement, eager to tell me of the remarkable coincidence that had occurred just that morning.
“I had been walking through the old burial ground and noted the name Chauncy Cabot on one of the stones. Fine fella, Chauncy. We were up at Harvard the same year, doncha know…”
He looked up at me to gauge my response to this bit of news. Satisfied, he continued, fairly bursting with what he was about to tell me.
“And what do you think? As I turned off the path, whom should I see but young Lewis Cabot. ‘Why,’ says I, I’ve just passed the grave of your great-grandfather.”
I rushed off to type this up, amused, but with a touch of rue. Poor Mr. Osborne at his polished desk, waiting for something to happen.
Except for dusting his lone rubber plant, winding his clock, and sorting his desultory heap of mail--flyers, alumni requests, and the occasional letter from an aged cousin on Nantucket—there was nothing for me to do.
Some days he’d come in banged up from his morning falls, bruises on his face. He was always cheerful, nonetheless, and if he was in a chatty mood, I’d ask him questions about the good ole days and the people he’d met.
At home I’d think of Mr. Osborne and the sadness of his empty office. “I wish there was something I could do to help him,” I said to my boyfriend, John.
John, himself of old Bostonian stock, was researching early Boston history. He worked at the Athaneum, a private library not far from the Common. He had a few questions that might interest Mr. Osborne, he said.
One morning soon after, I came into Mr. Osborne’s office to find him elated, jumping in his chair like a Jack-in-the-box, his face redder than usual.
“We have important work ahead of us, Miss O’Flaherty,” he said. He was holding up John’s letter like a trophy.
So began the year-long correspondence that filled and gladdened Mr. Osborne’s last days. Now I was busy transcribing stories of ye old Boston,
and was as enthusiastic as Mr. Osborne, prompting him to tell people, “Best damn’ secretary I ever had.”
Keep Your Slingshot Loaded
Little Imogene is four. Her mother comes into the room, smiling
“Guess what! There’s a surprise for you today!”
“Oh, mommy,” says Imogene, “you brought me a bunny rabbit!” and she jumps up and down.
“Close guess,” beams mother, “We’re going to visit Aunt Sophie!”
“You know, Aunt Sophie? She has a loud voice…? “
Imogene wrinkles up her forehead. “Does she look like a bunny rabbit?”
“That’s right—she does look a little like a bunny rabbit Her ears are pink and her nose twitches sometimes. Now you remember her!”
Imogene shakes her head back and forth very fast. She makes a bad face and starts to scuff her shoes against her chair.
“Your Aunt Sophie: she makes those nice cookies with the poppy seed and she lives in a small house with a big Madonna—that is, a statue of a Madonna—and she has a dog; he has no hair and his name is Bowser and he doesn’t like children…. “
“That’s the bad dog that bit me when I pulled his tail.” Imogene lifts up the leg of her jeans, “Right here! And it hurt so much!” She begins to whimper.
“No, he never bit you. It was another dog that bit you and gave you that scar. That dog’s name was Spot. Don’t you remember? Bowser only snapped at you from inside the sun parlor where Aunt Sophie had him chained up that day when we were there. You threw Aunt Sophie’s favorite plate at him.”
Imogene stops scuffing her shoes and begins to pick her nose. “I want a bunny rabbit,” she cries. “And I don’t remember any dumb Aunt Sophie!”
“Oh, of course you do; you just don’t have your thinking-cap on. She’s my mother’s sister. My mother only had that one sister and she was named Sophie after her grandmother—that’s your great-great-grandmother, imagine!”
Imogene has stopped picking her nose and is lying on the floor, kicking her feet and chanting, “I want my bunny rabbit! I want my bunny rabbit NOW!”
“… And then she brought out those cookies and said she made them especially for you, because you were coming, and…”
“I want my bunny rabbit! I don’t want any yucky old cookies!” shouts Imogene.
“Ah, so you do remember. You remember the cookies. Didn’t I tell you all along that you remember your Aunt Sophie? “
Imogene crosses her eyes, sticks out her tongue and pretends to vomit.
“Oh, I see. You remember the cookies--but you still don’t remember Aunt Sophie. Well, anyway, it doesn’t matter; I’m sure that she remembers you.”
While she was growing up, Josie’s house was big and stuffed with people. The Little Woman lived in the attic. Her name was Mary, and she was the oldest-looking person Josie had ever seen, except for the startling blueness of her eyes. To see those eyes, gazing out from their nest of wrinkles with the innocence of a child’s, was a surprise, like finding forget-me-nots in the midst of winter. Everything else about Mary, from the tiny gray bun at the top of her apple-doll head, to her rusty black shoes, was ancient. She was forever popping out of the shadowy hallways like some fairytale gnome, startling Josie and making her jump.
Mary believed that Franz Joseph was still Emperor of Austria--“Franz Joseph? He’s a good man,”--and that TV talk-show hosts were old lovers. She was crazy about Ed Sullivan, and said they’d had many good times together in the old country. She knew he still loved her too, because he communicated secret messages to her via the TV screen. She sidled around the house, one shoulder higher than the other, smiling her toothless smile, beaming flirtatious looks at the men folk.
Physically she was strong and healthy, with large work-gnarled hands. Wanting to be useful, she woke at dawn, rooted around in the family's laundry hampers and ironed the dirty clothes, boiled instant coffee in the percolator, and washed dishes in cold water, standing on a little stool Josie's father had built for her. She hated to bathe, saying it was a waste of soap. When her aura became oppressive, it was Josie’s duty to help Mary into the big bathtub and soap her body. Josie was ashamed of her own unchristian revulsion at Mary's poor old body with its sour smells and spent breasts.
The days Mary’s Social Security check came she put on her best dress and her black hat, slung her big pocketbook over her arm, and was soon out of the house and over to the liquor store. Armed with a pint bottle of whiskey, she’d set off toward the bridge crossing the river to the other side of town. Sometimes Josie would see her moving along with her tilted, one-shouldered gait. She’d be buffeted by the wind, her black coat flapping around her ankles, but smiling broadly as she hurried to the coldwater flat over a barbershop, where an old man waited, all alone.
The Rat and I: A History
First of all—and I want to make this clear—I did not choose the rat. The rat chose me before I was even born.
Bronislava, my grandmother, was the town midwife, herbalist, and rat catcher She was as famed for delivering folks from the plague of rodents as she was for delivering their babies. As the old people tell it, she was no pied piper: her methods were direct and brutal.
First she captured a rat. How she did this—whether with live trap or bare hands—no one remembers. But catch the rat she did, put it in a cage to keep, and starved it to the point of emaciation. Here the story gets ugly, though those who were there swear it’s true. The rat, nearly dead from hunger, would be loosed into the walls of a rat-infested house. Maddened, ravenous, and cannibalistic, the animal raged through the walls, pursuing its brethren within, forcing them, shrieking in terror, to flee the building. Then, I suppose, the ones who escaped simply entered another building, creating a fresh venue for Bronislava’s business.
My first experience with the rat was at age three. We lived in a tenement on the edge of a shantytown abutting a lumberyard. First, the fire. The lumberyard burned for days, and an army of rats stampeded up our street ahead of the flames. The grandeur of the great gray tide overwhelmed any fear I might have felt. But the next year we had a flood, and this time I saw many rats holding onto driftwood or swimming along with the current, and I saw their yellow teeth and was scared.
We moved into a house near a river. A big woodpile, the remnant of an old barn, sat in our backyard. River rats large as cats skulked in and out of the piles of wood. I watched from the safety of the kitchen window as our dog Brownie, a boxer with an unbobbed tail, had a field day catching the rats and flipping them over and over up into the air.
This house had two kitchens. In one of them stood a massive black woodstove that we lit in winter to keep the pipes from freezing—we only used that kitchen for storage. The kitchen was my nightmare. The rats frequented it; they got into the rice and gnawed on the vegetables. I remember going in to get my mother something and seeing a rat chomping on a head of cabbage. Paralyzed with shock, I looked at him and he looked at me, and we both knew which one of us had no business there. My father set traps. Mornings shone on scenes of slaughter and bloody trails from traps dragged along the floor, some lying sprung and empty next to the wall.
As I grew up, wherever I moved, the rats followed me. They followed me to the ocean, they followed me to Boston, and they followed me to New York City—although you could say, rather, that I followed them. I recall a lovely summer evening and a dinner at the elegant Park Avenue apartment of friends, when a large rat, uninvited, sidled in through the open patio doors to join the fun. My host, recently returned form an expedition to South America, captured the rat with a butterfly net and bore it away to the bowels of the building. I did not pause to contemplate the poor bugger’s fate.
For though my grandmother’s blood courses through my veins, it has been watered down and calmed. Rats are not my favorite animals, not even my favorite rodents, but her methods chill me. Yes, I would be rid of them, but how? Calmly, humanely, by injection? With a whiff of carbolic? I’d prefer to let someone else do the dirty work, as long as I didn’t know about it or see the carnage—and so, short-circuit my conscience.
Albina met Jan Stobieski while telling him of another woman’s death. She saw him waiting for his wife outside of Customs, and was pleased to see that she was first with the news. He was a widower now, she told him; his wife had taken ill with a fever and died the day before they reached port. Jan took off his hat and said nothing for a long while. Then they went together to the ship’s doctor and made the arrangements.
Albina’s cousins had taken the train from Connecticut to meet her and bring her back home with them. Jan, after seeing to his wife’s burial, followed. The mills along the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers needed more and more workers, and Jan soon found a job at Blumenthal Dyes.
After a decent wait of six months, Jan and Albina were married. She had just turned seventeen, a plump little minx who knew how to stamp her foot to get her way. Jan was thirty-three—old, she thought--a tall, thin man, good-natured, sober, and easily led; unused to women’s ways. He’d only been married to his first wife for a few days before he left for America.
Every week Jan brought his paycheck home intact. One Saturday he arrived from work later than usual. He’d removed a dime from the envelope, to buy himself a beer—some of the men at the plant had asked him along for the first time, and he was grateful to be invited. Albina could tell that he’d opened the envelope, and when he handed it to her she took it without saying a word and without looking inside. She removed the plate from the woodstove and threw the envelope into the fire. Jan gasped, but said nothing. Albina lifted the lid of a big pot simmering on the stove and began to stir it with a wooden spoon. Jan stood at the sink and washed himself as usual, and after he had dried himself with a towel, she took the ladle off its hook and doled out a bowl of cabbage soup. She remained at the stove as he ate his soup.
They had come to an understanding.
Trouble in Church
It's not often that we consider the church organist, the humble purveyor of wedding marches, hymns, and dirges. Oh, no dirges now. Dies Irae? No more.
This made the organist sad. She loved the tunes of yesteryear, especially a little number called "In the Cold Tomb," with its catchy refrain: "After a short while, we won't be around because God will call us there too." Her father loved to sing it while shaving--the straight razor poised over his carotid artery. Lovely childhood memories to linger over like old lint-covered lollipops that still retained their sweetness.
Today the organist was in a tizzy. Two weddings and two funerals in four hours! Hearses and stretch limos competing for space in the turn-around. Brides and undertakers entering and emerging from the church like mechanical figures in a tower clock. The pastor had banned the throwing of rice or confetti, but there was always the guest for whom a wedding was not a wedding without them, and the organist feared lest a pallbearer slip on the basmati.
And what if she played a funeral march for a wedding, or vice-versa? It was bound to happen one of these days, what with her eroding memory. And which would be worse--a doleful bride or a jouncing coffin? The general public is largely unaware of these difficulties.
The Bereavement Group
I found their number on line, so I phoned and said, “My brother is dying. I’d like to join your bereavement group. “
“Dying? You say he’s dying?”
“Yes, he’s very ill.”
“But am I to understand that he’s not dead yet?”
“No. But the doctors say it could happen any moment now.”
“Hmm. Not enough reason to join. He has to be dead.”
“Can’t you make an exception? I feel so alone.”
“Sorry, I’m afraid not.”
“But when I looked up this number, I got the impression you were here to help people like me.”
“Well, dear, call us again, after he’s really dead.” And the woman hung up.
I called them a week later. This time another woman answered the phone.
“My father died,” I said, “and I’m just so sad. I thought your group might be helpful.”
My father had died ten years ago, but there was no doubt in my mind that he was really, REALLY dead; I had thrown his ashes off the boat myself.
The syrupy voice on the other end of the phone oozed sympathy, “Oh you poor thing. I’m so glad you called us---you’ll find so many nice people who can share your experience. Such a comfort at this time.”
I was in luck, too, she said, since they were meeting at eight o’clock that very evening in the basement of All Saints’ Episcopal Church.
The church was nearby, and I arrived a few minutes early. A short-haired woman in a cerise pants-suit introduced herself as the counselor; I recognized the snooty voice of the first phone call and, as she steered me toward a chair, I wondered if she recognized mine. A half dozen people were already there, milling about, drinking coffee and hugging each other. Several hands held Kleenexes, and I noticed a tanned older woman sitting by herself, hugging her bony knees, her head down. A pile of crumpled tissues lay on the seat next to her. Obviously, I was in the presence of raw grief, and suddenly felt like an impostor, in between bereavements, as it were.
The counselor made her way over to the woman and I heard them speaking as the woman sobbed intermittently. Odd, but I could have sworn they were discussing the death of a pet. That was a bereavement, too—and I understood the woman’s grief--but I had imagined that this was a group for people who had lost human loved ones. The woman’s distress accelerated, and she began to keen, rocking to and fro and emitting a low, moaning wail.
The counselor put her arm around her. The woman wiped her nose, hiccupped, straightened her blouse, and allowed herself to be propelled to a chair in the circle. A few more members had arrived, and everyone was beaming compassion and sympathy at the poor woman's distress.
Going around the circle, we identified ourselves and our losses: a husband here, a wife there, an uncle, a beloved friend. When it was the woman’s turn she could hardly contain herself, and we all waited until she got her emotions under control. Then she spoke.
“My sailboat, my boat I’d had since I was a teen-ager,” here she broke down again, as we waited expectantly. “It meant so much to me--My parents sold it! Just last week!! How could they, oh—how could they have done such a cruel thing? ”
Everyone looked properly respectful of her anguish, but I had a hard time keeping a straight face. A boat! She was grieving for a boat!! What kind of a cockamamie bereavement group was this? I planned a quick exit.
“And the worst part—I can’t forgive myself—I hadn’t used my boat in years and they threatened to sell it if I wasn’t going to use it-—but I didn’t believe them! And now it’s gone!! It meant more to me than my family; more than life!!” Fresh sobs wracked her body and she looked ready to collapse. A few members of our group rushed to enfold her in soothing embraces.
Mirth bubbled up in me and I bit my lip in an effort to contain it; it didn’t work. My stomach hurt and tears of laughter sprang to my eyes. I snatched a Kleenex from a nearby supply and hid my glee behind it.
Maybe this bereavement group was a good idea after all. When was the last time I had laughed?