a little bereft
I picture the girl in a cotton dress with a cardboard suitcase
standing by the side of a dusty road
out on the Plains somewhere and
she’s waiting for the bus to top the hill and
pull up with a snort of exhaust
no one is here to see her off but
that’s ok because
she is going to a new life now and
these days being what they are
she’s carrying a new life in her womb and
she’s named it Rose and
she touches her stomach and
Ssshhhh Rosie it’s going to be alright
although she doesn’t know if that’s true and
she doesn’t know how far 40 dollars and 23 cents will take her
to Omaha maybe
maybe even further if she skips dinner
she feels the dampness under her arms and
along the band that holds her hair back off her face
she hopes the bus will come soon
she doesn’t know if they’ll come looking for her but
it’s in the Lord’s hands now
she checks her pocketbook one more time and
looks up to see the roof of the bus cresting the hill
then the headlights
then the tires wet from the mirage and
then the whole thing as big as a house
windows all dusty so you can’t see the driver
only his bulky shadow
where are you headed, miss
as he pulls the door lever open
she reaches for the handrail and
pulls herself up the high steps
Omaha she says
might as well.
(in the manner of WG Sebold)
Thinking of a film—there may be more than one version—I saw again while in England. The documentary follows an old circus elephant (I think I may have seen her for real in my childhood, say 1949-1952, when my father’s friend Francis Krumenacher, who later changed his name to Frank Lee, came to our house in Ralston, Nebraska, at that time a small town some 7 miles south of Omaha, and gave my father free tickets to take us to the Shrine Circus which came to Ak-Sar-Ben—Nebraska spelled backward—Arena once a year. Oh, it was a real circus alright, with dozens of clowns emerging out of a single small car and arial flyers high overhead passing and catching each other in increasingly dangerous and scary aerobatics—one, a girl not much older than me, wearing a top hat and tiny shorts stood on a foot-square platform forty feet in the air between tricks—and barking seals in dunce caps clapping their fins, a genuine Lion Tamer making a real live lion and a tiger leap through hoops at the snap of his whip, horses wearing high-feathered plumes upon which beautiful girls in skimpy skirts and diaphanous blouses rode standing up, holding the reins with one hand and waving with the other while their steeds high-stepped around the perimeter of the tent, and a Ringmaster in a red tuxedo one could say ‘just like in the movies,’ only of course that’s the reverse of the truth—the movies look just like the man in the shiny crimson suit, a brass band that played an unending succession of drumrolls and resounding cymbal crashes whenever a trick was performed in whatever ring, and me and my Dad and my sister—I don’t remember my mother being there—our hands sticky from cotton candy wrapped around cardboard cones and caramel popcorn balls that disintegrated when you bit into them, spewing sugary popcorn in your lap and around your feet and even in your socks ,which you discovered when you got home and tracked it onto the rug, and oh! elephants of course, six or eight of them in bangled capes and jeweled headdresses, marching in, holding each other’s tails with their trunks— When I was eight years old I wrote my first book about them, called Pinky’s Parasol—carrying Princesses in crowns and gowns perched astraddle with bare legs and ballerina slippers tucked just behind the huge ears, who performed by sitting upright on round-topped stools and lifting their forelegs one at a time on the cue of the handler and one even stood on her tiny stool, her four giant feet covering every inch of the top, then lifted herself up to full height to the roar of the crowd, so she may have been one of those very elephants.) who worked for 27 years under the Big Top using a stage name that no one remembers except her handler, maybe named Mahmoud or some foreign-sounding something, who had been travelling with her for all these, and maybe more, years, and may have been the dark man in a garish loin cloth holding a tasseled switch walking beside her when the Pachyderm Parade came in, and now the circus—they didn’t say which one—was no more, and what’s to be done with her? but somewhere in some grassy state, maybe Tennessee or Kentucky, someone, a woman, has created an Elephant Preserve and arrangements have been made for her—the elephant, not the woman—to be transported to this place far away, so the film shows Mahmoud bathing her and rubbing her and talking to her, then leading her to a ramp going up into a beat-up semi-trailer truck for her trip across America, only she doesn’t know trucks, only circus trains, and she stops at the bottom of the ramp and sways from left feet to right feet, back and forth to ease herself until the driver loses patience and orders Mahmoud to ‘git her up in there and you’re goin’ with her!’ and locks them both in the dark and drives into the night and when they arrive at the Preserve the camera pans first to an emerald field where peaceful elephants stand in ankle-high grass with their ears gently flapping in the breeze, then to a cement barn with steel-barred subdivisions where the elephant is led into and locked in, where Mahmoud is shown standing with her, giving her water, stroking her, before the driver shouts from the truck for him to ‘git up in here, we gotta get on the road!’ and I break down at this point—what? after 27 years, they can’t let him stay?—and watch the rest of the film through tears and drizzle as the elephant is reunited with (perhaps) her sister and the closing shot is of the two of them holding trunks in the Edenic field, but my heart rides with Mahmoud in the cab of a truck smelling of armpits and onions, all the long way back to Omaha, grieving the loss of his beloved giantess.
4th of July Picnic
The Fourth of July family reunion takes over the entire town park. The men place huge picnic tables end to end to make one long trestle down the middle of the park.
The women set out the food—every morsel carried in from the farms covered with damp tea towels, held in laps, wedged in the back seat between kids.
corn on the cob,
jello salads in all colors—
green with pineapple
orange with shredded carrots
yellow with celery and bits of nut
tricolored with three separate fillings
each topped with cream cheese whipped to a froth and a tiny
(There’s a competition around jello creativity.)
baked beans redolent of molasses,
coleslaw dressed with home-made mayonnaise,
pies— oh the pies!
ambrosias of fruit cocktail floating in clouds of whipped cream
root beer floats
cakes—oh the cakes!—
yellow cakes with chocolate frosting
angel food cakes crowned with drizzled strawberries
white cakes iced with butter cream
cupcakes for the little kids, available on demand.
Nursing mothers sit in the shade; men play horseshoes; kids run amok everywhere, dirty from sliding into home, sticky around the mouths and fingers from all the dessert sampling, tee shirts stained with spilled Kool-aid, a skinned knee or two. Tears and teasing and chase games.
guitars come out from truck beds,
harmonicas come out of pockets
old Swedish songs and
Hank Williams songs and
country songs and
Old Country songs and
ballads of longing: If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison
walls I would fly…
The uncles sing rowdy songs: There was an old man and he had an
old sow, rowseldy, rowseldy row, with an oink and a snort and a grunt
and a snuffle, rowseldy dow. Us kids gather around them and giggle
at the noises, pretty soon we are all oinking and snuffling as the
tune is sung over and over.
Poetry is recited.
Little kids sleep on blankets under the picnic table. Ladies gossip about the scandalous town girl who dares to wear short shorts in front of all these boys and men. Old farmers, thumbs hooked in their suspenders, talk about crops and weather and stock and water. Courting couples sneak off behind the trees for a kiss and a promise and maybe the beginning of the next generation, foretelling a wedding right after high school graduation.
At last the fireworks!
Uncle Rudy (who refuses to go to the reunion, claims it’s because he hates pickle relish) stays on the farm, drives his tractor up and down the rows of sugar beets—we bring him an ice cold root beer float out to the field during the middle of the day and return to the park) saves all year and spends a fortune on a box of fireworks that comes from Michigan every 1st of July. We all go out to the farm for the fireworks. Little kids are given sparklers and poppers and “worms” that can fizzle under the mothers’ feet and make them scream. Uncle Rudy puts lit firecrackers inside an old oil drum and us kids ride it while they explode, call it our “motorcycle.” Rudy and his son Karl (all of the girls of all ages are madly in love with Karl) and a couple of other older cousins set off the Roman Candles and Fountains, bursting up and up and over the fields of ripening corn. Somebody starts cranking the ice-cream freezer, we all take turns as it gets harder and harder to turn the handle. When all the fireworks have been set off, there will be homemade peach ice cream.
Us kids get “over-diddled” as the saying goes, cranky and hyper. A hand reaches out, a bottom gets smacked, doesn’t matter whose hand or which bottom. A cautionary thwack. A pout appears, a finger points—it wasn’t me!—another hand reaches down and plunks another random kid on a lap until it stops wiggling and whizzling.
Stars come out, there’s coffee “up at the house.” Long after dark, if one can keep one’s eyes open long enough, one can see the line of cars driving out along the farm roads.
She pushes open the screen door and steps through, brushing a wet strand of hair off her flushed face, shielding her eyes from the sudden glare, trading the heat of the kitchen for the heat of the day.
The hens bustle and gossip in the yard, picking in the dirt in the false hope of a worm.
The windmill next to the horse tank creaks in the slight breeze.
Insects buzz in lazy circles.
The sound of the combine rumbles its bass note in the far field.
When it stops, she will know that the farm hands are coming in for the noon meal.
Big men in sweat-soaked shirts with bits of earth and wheat chaff adhering, steaming like horses.
They’ll stop to sluice their hands and forearms in the tin bucket on the way in to the table where they will roughly pass the bowls of potatoes and corn, the plates of sliced ham and bread, the tureen of gravy, the dish of butter, the pitcher of lemonade. They’ll talk in one-word sentences with their mouths full.
For just this moment, she stands, arms akimbo, on the stoop.
When the men return to the field, there will be the washing-up before starting the pies for supper, the bread for tomorrow.
She walks around to the garden at the side of the house, bends to fill her apron with ripe tomatoes and long pods of peas to shell while the pies are in the oven.
Lifting her eyes she sees dust rising along the farm road toward town—sounds like Warren’s old truck, maybe they’ll stop in on the way back.
There’s a picture of her hung downstairs on the cellar wall, framed in an oval frame:
May Queen, with flowing hair and lustrous eyes, wearing a white dress with a lace collar and a hand-made pendant.
She straightens her back. Lord it is so hot today.
Who could even remember the long blizzards of prairie winter, the dark days, the rope strung from barn to house in case the snow is so deep and blinding a man could get lost and freeze to death yards from the house—like Edward—and the ground frozen so hard the unnamed baby could not be buried, so lay swaddled on a shelf in the hayloft until the thaw.
The rhubarb blazes red and green like Christmas. A dusty lilac bush leans against the wall of the house.
She’ll bring the washing-up water out to give them a drink once the bread is rising.
Sweet peas climb the fence.
Grandpa had a horse named Rusty.
Our grandparents lived on homesteaded land in Nebraska and us kids spent summer days on the farm. We were handed an egg sandwich and sent outside in the morning and not let in ‘til supper. Kids were like dogs, it was felt, not civilized, not yet fully human, not fit to be in the house during the day.
So we’d go find our Grandpa—there was a pack of us at any given time, 4 or 5 cousins too young to work, too old for the playpen—and we’d say,
Can we ride Rusty?
Sure, he’d say, if you can catch him, you can ride him.
So, we’d get a rope from the barn and head for the pasture to catch Rusty.
Now Rusty was a huge old horse—at least from our perspective, belly-high at best—so we had to devise strategies to catch him. One of us would carry the rope, another one would fill his pocket with some oats, and we’d go forth. We figured Rusty couldn’t see us coming. He’d be calmly grazing, and we’d sneak up on him, get closer and closer, maybe as close as 2 or 3 feet away from him, and then Rusty would walk forward 5 or 6 feet and set to grazing again. We’d sneak up on him again, maybe closer this time, and he’d let us almost touch him before he stepped forward. Now this activity went on for several hours—an old horse and a passel of kids start-stopping across the fields.
At some point, with a capful of oats held out as a bribe, Rusty would come and stick his nose in for a minute. The cousin with the rope would attempt to toss the rope over Rusty’s neck and a cousin on the other side would catch it and run under his neck and if we were lucky, we’d have caught him. Now we could ride him.
Only we had to get up on him first. So, one kid would lead him up to a fence, as close as possible and the rest of us would climb up on the fence and when Rusty was in place we’d jump onto his back—theoretically at least. Rusty would stand patiently, head to tail near to the fence, and when the signal was given to jump on, when all of us were midair, Rusty would take one step sideways and we would all fall on the ground between fence and horse.
One time we all made it on, and Rusty walked calmly about 20 steps bearing his exuberant cowboys, over to the nearest rain puddle and lowered his head quickly as if to drink and we all spilled ass over ears into the mud. When we came into the farmyard streaming with mud and polliwogs, saying it was all Rusty’s fault for tricking us, Grandpa looked up from whatever he was fixing at the time and said,
That horse didn’t trick you, he is just smarter than you.
Our parents pile us in the DeSoto and we go “home” for Thanksgiving. (“Home” is Nebraska; “the house” is where we live.) Dad sings Oh Mister Moon, Shine on Harvest Moon and all the other songs he knows with the moon in them, and Shenandoah and I Told a Lie to my Heart and all kinda Hank Williams as he drives; Mom is silent; us kids in the back seat elbow and squabble, eventually drift off to sleep—theydo, not me; I have to sing along—as we travel the straight, townless road lit only by Mister Moon and our puny headlights.
There is one place out where the two States meet up, where you have to go one way or t’other: If Dad is driving, we go straight over the railroad tracks and turn right ‘til
WELCOME TO NEBRASKA
HOME OF ARBOR DAY
looms up out of the dark and the road narrows and we’re almost there; on the very rare times when Mom is driving by herself, she gets lost where the road branches and stops the car and cries—sometimes for a long time—before she puts the car back in gear and drives on. It is never good to let her know you are awake out there.
Thanksgiving Dinner all the aunts and uncles and cousins arrive with food and food and food and all of it homegrown and straight off the farm. There are big people tables in the living room and kids’ tables in the kitchen and babies being passed around arm to arm and more people coming in the back door bringing cakes and jello salads in all shades of the rainbow. There is a toast with Mogen David wine at one point; everybody has a sip, even little kids.
After dinner the menfolk all go down to the basement to play poker and drink whiskey and smoke. That’s where I head. Who wants to be upstairs listening to a bunch of gossip about who got bit by the trouser worm—a phrase used when little pitchers with big ears are around? The rest of the kids are bundled and mufflered and sent outside regardless of weather, but who wants to run around with a bunch of wild cousins when you can sit on your Dad’s knee and lay down his next card, surrounded by men’s voices and smoke and delicious cussing? Who wants a second piece of pie when you can get a forbidden tase of Old Grandad?
They don’t celebrate Thanksgiving Day here in England. I have to be content with nostalgia. Fortunately, I have a vast store of memories from which to choose:
All the years my parents and us girls—and later Gregg, of course—piled in the DeSoto and went “home” to Nebraska: Dad singing “Oh Mister Moon,” “Shine on Harvest Moon” and all the other songs he knew with the moon in them, and “Shenandoah” and “I Told a Lie to my Heart” and all kinda Hank Williams songs as he drove; Mom silent; us kids in the back seat elbowing and squabbling, eventually drifting off to sleep (They did, not me, I had to sing along and keep track of the center line—when there was one—as it slid under the front of the car.) as we travelled the straight, townless road, lit only by the moon and our headlights, out East or due West, depending on where we lived at the time, Home. We never called where we lived “home,” it was just “the house” (like "Come on back in the house now!”). There was one place out where Colorado and Nebraska met up, where you had to go one way or the other. If Dad was driving, we went straight over the railroad tracks and turned right ‘til “Welcome to Nebraska, Home of Arbor Day” loomed and the road narrowed; on the very rare times when Mom was driving (Where was Dad? I don’t recall.) she would get lost where the road branched and stop the car and cry, sometimes for a long time, before she put the car back in gear and drove on. It was never good to let her know you were awake out there.
Thanksgiving Dinner at Grandma Gregg’s: all the aunts and uncles and cousins and food and food and food and all of it homegrown and straight off the farm: turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top, green beans, green peas, creamed corn, gravy, fresh baked bread and handmade butter and pies, oh my god, pies: pumpkin, apple, rhubarb, cherry, berry, pecan, lemon meringue, banana cream. There were big people tables in the living room and kids’ tables in the kitchen and babies being passed around, arm to arm, and more people coming in the back door bringing cakes and jello salads in all shades of the rainbow. There was a toast at one point, with Mogen David wine; everybody had a sip, even kids from somebody’s glass. After dinner the menfolk all went down to the basement to play poker and drink whiskey and smoke. That’s where I headed. Who wanted to be upstairs and listen to a bunch of gossip of who “got bit by the trouser worm”—a phrase used when “little pitchers with big ears” were around? The rest of the kids were bundled and mufflered and sent outside regardless of weather, but who wanted to run around with a bunch of wild cousins when you could sit on your Dad’s knee and lay down his next card, surrounded by men’s voices and smoke and delicious cussing?
The Ecumenical Thanksgiving services in Ashland, where all the woo-woos and spiritual folk gathered in the morning in a spirit of all-one-world. Swami Ty would bring a giant conch to blow to announce in turn: “And now we will hear from the Sufi Tradition, Blaaat; and now we will hear from the Jewish Tradition, Blaaat; and now we will hear from the Pagan Tradition, Blaaat; and now we will hear from the Christian Tradition, Blaaat; and now we will hear from the Native American Tradition, Blaaaat; and now we will hear from the Buddhist Tradition, Blaaat; and oh, there were more, until every Tradition had been represented prayerfully and joyfully in ecumenical bliss, and then we would end in an ecstatic circle of Divine Love before devolving into sects to vituperously argue about which way the chairs should be stacked when put away, and THEN we would all go up to Lucy’s and feast.
Or the Thanksgiving back In The Day when we ground up some (ok, a lot of) marijuana and mixed it into the stuffing before it went into the turkey and… and…um… I don’t really remember the rest.
And the Thanksgiving Day in New York when Glenn and I decided to take the train upstate a ways, and when we got off in Cold Spring or Nyack or somewhere and everything in town was shut up tight, and we walked up and up the rainy street until we came to a Mexican place that was open and went in. The café consisted of one long room of tables and chairs and one back room crossways to it, containing a couple of active pool tables. There were dozens of men in the place—the only woman besides me was the waitress—all Latin American, all speaking every kind of Spanish but Mexican, and it dawned on us that they were migrant workers, up in El Norte sin familia having a Feast Day off, but not invited to the feast.
Oh, and the year when I split from my boyfriend in Seattle and drove to LA through three states of rain in a car that wouldn’t go uphill and poured water up through the floorboards and arrived at Huey’s house just in time for potluck Thanksgiving dinner, feeling untethered and estranged and bedraggled, and I went to get a slice of Turkey from the sideboard and it was Tofurkey! And I burst into tears of disgust and dislocation and blasphemy (How could they?) and hid in the kitchen and a guy I met a long time ago followed me in and said, “Hello beautiful,” and it was Glenn.
Willie Nelson sings a song
There’s an old house key in a kitchen drawer
To the door I can’t unlock no more
Sometimes I hold that key real tight
But What do you do after goodbye?
Night and Day, night and day
They don’t celebrate Thanksgiving Day here in England. I try to tell them they don’t know what they’re missing.
Dial M for Murder
Saturday night. All the kids old enough to stay up past 7 pm are sent to the movie house under orders to
Watch out for each other!
The movie house is a skinny, dilapidated clapboard building at the end of Main Street, across from the Town Hall. Inside, the floor is slanted so that the seats in back are almost as high as a balcony and the seats down front are about three feet from the screen. A few farm couples and newly marrieds are here and there along the sides, but mostly it’s kids: little kids in the front row, settled in with one box of malt balls for every three kids; rowdy boys in the middle rows, where they can torment the younger ones with beebees and popcorn projectiles; and teenagers way up back so they can make out for two hours uninterrupted. The behemoth projector is up a half-stair, run by an unkempt, child-hating, and surly man—the only person in town who knows how to make it work.
Josie is too big for the front row but doesn’t want to get close to the boys, who will surely pour something down her back or stick her pigtails in grape Nehi, so she stays down front and scrunches as low as she can in her seat.
She doesn’t much like the movie; there are no horses or cowboys or pretty girls. A man who isn’t very nice whispers with another bad man to do something to the woman in a long white dress. The music gets spookier and spookier as the men get meaner and nastier. Josie scrunches deeper and holds her arms tight across her chest. It’s nighttime in the movie now; the woman in the long white dress is alone in the house when the phone rings. She looks frightened when she picks it up.
Hello ….. No answer. She jiggles the hangup button on the phone.
Hello …. No answer. Jiggle. Press. Press. Press.
Hello? .... Jiggle. Jiggle.
One of the bad men creeps up behind her, holding a scarf toward her neck….
Josie is scared. She doesn’t understand why the phone rang, why the woman keeps saying Hello, who the man is. As the music reaches its sinister crescendo, she cannot bear to look any more. She jumps up from her seat and makes her way to the back of the movie house and out into the tiny lobby. Nobody is in the ticket booth. The candy stand is closed up.
Josie wants to go back to Grandma’s. Now.
She steps out into the street. Even though it is Saturday, the Town Hall is dark and empty. Josie knows her way in the daytime, but everything looks different at night. Down to the left, the water tower stands on its spindly legs like a monster bug. A few cars and farm trucks are parked haphazardly on the street, but no one is around. The curtains in the café are drawn; the black windows of the bank look like eyes. She walks past the store—closed, the only light a dim bulb over the counter in the back. She walks further up the street to where she can see into the Bar. The inside glows with yellow lights, thumps with noise and people talking loudly, but she knows she is not supposed to go in, and even if she did, the people in there would probably make her go back to the movie house and wait for her cousins to take her back to Grandma’s. She hurries past, holding her coat tightly against her body.
Main Street is tarred for the length of its three blocks; at the corner, the street becomes a dirt road. Once she passes the big town tree the huge grain elevators loom up in front of her. She knows where she is now; all she has to do is turn here and go past the silos and down the road and the house will be there. She’s still scared, though, and the woman’s frantic voice saying
echoes in her head. The road seems to go on forever, past the crossroad out to the cemetery, past a heap of railroad ties and barbed wire, past several more trees, now rustling in the night wind.
She runs now, nearly losing her footing in the rutted road. At last she sees the familiar lighted windows. She races across the gravel driveway and up the steps to the back door, lets herself in and walks through the deserted kitchen to the front room. The room is filled with smoke. Three card tables are set up and all the big people—aunts and uncles and Grandma and Grandpa and Mother and Daddy are all smiling and holding fans of cards. Somebody slaps down a card with a cry of triumph.
One of the aunts looks up and sees Josie in the doorway.
How was the movie?
I didn’t stay.
Who brought you home?
Josie lifts her chin and squares her shoulders.
Me in Grandpa Gregg’s rackety truck bumping along the rutted farm road. A pheasant runs across the road, his plumage brilliant against the monochromatic brown stubble of the harvested fields. I know something about pheasants: I know that the males are bright and the females are plain; I know that once a year the men take guns and leave in the dark of morning to hunt them—the rest is a Man Mystery, forbidden for girls to know. (Girl Mysteries are about secret body parts and babies, but who wants to know that stuff?)
I look at my Grandpa, his large strong hands on the wheel, his work boots and suspenders. He doesn’t talk while he drives. I’m the only kid who pesters him to ride along out to the farm. And he lets me, even though I am a girl.
My uncle Rudy is like that, he lets me drive the tractor by myself up and down the rows, even though I have to stand up to drive because I’m not big enough to reach the wheel from the seat. (Once the tractor stalled while I was out there cultivatin’ and I had to wait for a long time for him to come from another field and start it up again since I couldn’t reach the pedals.)
There are lots of people back at the house. We’re here because Uncle Ralph died. His body is in an open casket in the living room at Aunt Bobbie’s. I saw him, lying there with people sitting in chairs all over the place, the men holding their hats between their knees. This afternoon’s the funeral up at the Methodist Church. So that’s why Grandpa is driving out to the farm this early, I s’pose, but I don’t ask.
Uncle Ralph was my favorite because he swore in front of us kids and winked when Aunt Bobbie reprimanded him: NOT IN THE HOUSE! He smoked, too, and came inside with a cigarette dangling from his lips, and Aunt Bobbie reprimanded him about that: NOT IN THE HOUSE! and I caught his eye when he winked again. Once Aunt Bobbie bought him a ring and made him wear it, but he thought it was too girlie and wore it anyway until not too long after, the ring caught in the farm machinery and caused him to lose that finger. Now he’s dead, floating in the box on a trestle in the parlor and Aunt Bobbie is puffing a cigarette because she can’t stand the smell of the house without his smoke in every room.
Grandpa checks out the fields—the Ogier’s wheat, the Chrisman’s corn—all harvested now, flat fields on rolling hills.
I have thought about it, and now I do know that I will not grow up to be a man and go pheasant hunting.
It doesn’t seem quite fair.
I’ll say right up front I never got to be Mary. I was too tall for one thing, so I got put in the back row as an Angel. I was not cute for another, I mean I can still see Barbara Ann DeWitt with her long blonde finger curls held in place by a halo that never once slipped out of place as she adored the Baby Jesus. (I hated Barbara Ann Dewitt—she was such a nice girl.And not just in the Christmas pageant either, I mean all the time!)
As far as I was concerned the boys got all the good parts anyway, I mean they got to be Joseph, leading the donkey, or one of the Shepherds proclaiming Hark the Herald Angels Sing at the top of their voices from off stage, or best of all one of the Three Kings, who got to come down the aisle bearing gifts and singing We Three Kings of Orient Are (and I don’t mean the verse about tried to smoke a rubber cigar. My personal favorite.)
The little kids got to be the animals, so they rolled around in the hay during rehearsal and were like straw porcupines by the time the show started. One of them always shrieked during O Little Town of Bethlehem, probably because one of the lowing cattle poked him in the butt just as Miss Munch, our music teacher lowered her hands in the sssshhhh cue when we were supposed to sing extra quiet.
The best thing about the Christmas pageant as far as I was concerned was coming in with my Dad just before it started. My Dad wore his tweed coat and his Fedora and smelled like Old Spice. I had on a green felt skirt my grandma made that flared at the knee quite elegantly. The gymnasium was dark, decorated with garlands we made out of green and red construction paper for weeks before. All the chairs in the school were set in rows, so you had to find your place excuse-me-excuse-me-excuse-meall along the row since certain important people took all the aisle seats. I walked all along the row with my Dad to his place and then excuse-me-excuse-me-excuse-me’dmy way back out to go behind the curtain and become an Angel. Plenty of humph-humph-humph as I bumped knees going along. I liked that.
As Angels, our only lines in the play were Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oria in Excelsis Deo [repeat] but we could belt it out at the top of our voices and see if we could get to the end of the line on one breath. Loud and long, my kind of singing.
At the end of the pageant, after the baby was put in the manger and lullabied, everybody was given a lighted candle set in a paper round, to hold under our chins as we sang Silent Night, leading the audience in procession up the aisles and out into Christmas Eve.
You probably wouldn’t believe it nowadays, but it was always a white Christmas, and the taillights of the cars going out onto the snow-banked roads created strings of blinking red and white ahead and behind as far as you could see. Dad sang all the carols as he drove, and we rolled down the car windows and sang with him all the way home. Loud and long.
As she climbs the steps this dark morning, snow falls—big flakes that stick to the sidewalk and will pile up and obscure it by midday. The wind freshens, harbinger of a stronger storm to come. Even in the moments it takes to extricate her key and turn the lock the flakes now blow sideways against the building.
CARNEGIE PUBLIC LIBRARY
proudly etched in yellow sandstone over the door. 36 Walnut Street, just a block off Main, a block up from the red brick schoolhouse, across from the City Park where the domed roof of the bandstand looks like a cupcake within spun sugar railings.
She pushes open the heavy door, sets her purse on the checkout desk, hangs her damp coat and felt hat on their pegs, turns on the desk lamp. Its soft glow brings life as well as light to the room: the books themselves seem to stir awake, breathing their knowledge in whispers from stack to stack; a golden sheen forms on the big oak table in the center of the room.
Before she starts her day, before she turns the window sign from CLOSED to OPEN, she pours a cup of tea from the flask she’s brought from home, holds it in two hands as she stands in the window looking out on the whitening street. The snow is coming thicker now, perhaps she will have to close early.
She sees the headlights of a single car coming around the corner from Main Street onto Walnut, a green Plymouth with round headlights looking like snow globes in the swirling flakes.
He’s heading out into the coming storm, out to the small towns and homesteads, stopping wherever there are folks, talking, talking, talking to farmers and farmer’s wives and shopkeepers and bankers. He has a territory, even in a blizzard. But he doesn’t stop here, although he slows almost imperceptibly. She can see the side of his face, his brown fedora, his green tie, his hands on the wheel. She raises the cup to her lips and kisses it. He lifts one hand off the wheel, then puts it down again. At the last moment he looks up at the Library, sees her, faces forward again, accelerates.
The car’s front window is cracked open to act as a defroster. She can feel his longing escaping like a mist, her longing flowing in the steam from her teacup, both vapors somehow meeting midair like snow ghosts. Dancing.
She watches as the taillights grow smaller, red dots in the drift, as the car turns back up to Main Street, toward the State Road.
She turns back to her duties: starting the heat, turning on the lights in the main room, stacking the books and newspapers in the right order for her regulars, putting out a new children’s book for a young mother who comes every day with her fractious child.
She turns the window sign to OPEN and sees young Josie waiting, bundled up in the snow, holding her books to her chest to keep them dry. Josie comes every Tuesday at this time on her way to school where she has permission to read when she finishes her work.
—Good morning, Josie, she says as she opens the door. It looks like a storm coming.
— I saw your daddy drive out of town not long ago.
—Yes, says Josie, her eyes big as saucers
* “One of his [Andre Linde, theoretical physicist]…philosophical ideas…was that ‘feelings’ are actual objects. [He] theorized that when two people are communicating, verbally or nonverbally, their feeling-objects are shared simultaneously.” Alan Lightman Probable Impossibilities p 170
April 15, 2022, 9:37:45 PM