Author of four novels and a seven-episode limited series for television.
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THIS LIFE HAPPENED
Back then women wore pumps and stockings, the seamed kind held up by garter belts or the more restrictive girdles. Late fall coats were made from boiled wool, neutral, stopped mid-calf, the hems of shirtwaist dresses secreted beneath.
Men wore fedoras.
Mom dropped us off, Emma and me, as parents did back then, at the cinema in downtown Chicago, in the Loop, the movie we saw forgotten, buried under the events that followed. Surely not a cartoon even though we were children. Neither of us tolerated them. We preferred to wrap our imaginations around Hollywood movies and straight-faced actors. Movies were full of possibilities. Movies picked at our imaginations.
Mom told us she’d come back to pick us up, to remain inside. She always talked that way, reverse order, the picking up the point, but before that, we were to remain inside.
The Chicago streets were less familiar than those in our quiet suburban town. Emma heard the same instructions. Older by four years, I was the responsible one, my duty to pay attention.
Once the movie ended and we stood waiting in the lobby, Emma grew impatient. One can expect that from the second born, both coddled and ignored, that and her sense of unwarranted sovereignty, capricious and irresponsible as she was, a counter to my steadfastness.
She would be the one eager to leave, at five too small to push open the plated door but sufficiently agile to slip through as others exited. From inside, I watched her stop mid-sidewalk, pedestrians looping around her, a sparkling stone in a rushing stream. Her coat was a red and black plaid with a black velveteen collar, the buttons big and flat, covered in matching velveteen. With her back to me, I couldn’t see them, but knew they were there. I’d worn that coat, Mom sewing tight buttons that loosened from use, until the sleeves no longer reached my wrists.
I touched the tip of my tongue to my lip where the salty, buttery taste of popcorn lingered. Emma’s licorice had darkened her tongue. She’d stuck it out at me as the lights dimmed and the movie began. The lobby smelled of popcorn. Maybe licorice too.
A man leaned against a parking meter, alert, his eyes moving through and beyond the pedestrians. He wasn’t going anywhere, at least for now.
I angled closer to the window, edged to the door, then stopped. What was it like to ignore Mom’s instructions, to be negligent and act on whim, if only for a moment, and join Emma on the sidewalk?
Emma stood small and beset, not at all like she would stand on a familiar street, some quiet walkway. It was cold (that day after Thanksgiving) but the sun was warm. Everything was dry. Rain was needed to clean the air, settle the dust. A final glorious day before the onset of hard fall rains and then, winter.
As my memory unspools, I recall, although those fedoras were the fashion, none of the men, purposeful in their strides, the occasional arm ringing a woman whose coat was open, wore them.
Except that man standing sentry by that meter, the sole of one shoe pressed against its grimed post.
Emma glanced back, stuck her tongue out a second time at me. Not so black as earlier but still showing that defiance before, likely curious, she started down the sidewalk, to my right as I remained, challenged, at the window. She was jostled once, then twice, by agitated, indifferent pedestrians. Many carried packages, the kind from department stores with sturdy cord handles that cut into ungloved palms. One brushed against her, nearly tipping her over. No one stopped.
The man unhitched from the meter, touched the rim of his hat as a woman ran past, and in five strides, he reached Emma. What he said was sufficient for her to put her hand in his.
They walked this way, past three more meters, the people filling space behind them, like water rushing into a tide pool.
Eternity before our mother entered the frame from the left, an afterthought to some otherwise completed picture Emma might draw, to be later magneted to the refrigerator. Walking with purpose toward the theater door. Then, seeing Emma, seeing her plaid coat, Mom turned course, quickened her pace, caught up with the man who greeted her as if she was a once close, now seldom seen friend. She was less accommodating. He did not remove that hat. Emma’s hand was now in hers.
Emma accepted all of this as any five-year old might, no different than if she were idly playing a board game, Chutes and Ladders, but would have rather been serving tea in china cups no bigger than thimbles to her doll. Rather watch me working Tinker Toys into elaborate if fragile creations, waiting until I left them for her to dissemble.
Or the two of us dressing up in the attic, a pastime we both agreed on, the satins and silks of old clothes pooling around suede platform shoes too big for our feet. Emma twirling like a ballerina.
Emma had recently discovered Elmer’s Glue. Mostly things got pasted together that shouldn’t have been. She’d rather having been doing that.
I always insisted on that board game, Chutes and Ladders, my favorite. Rolling the dice, moving the pieces without emotion, those swift random shifts in outcome.
Childhood games or chance events witnessed by few, forgotten by most.
Where Emma is concerned, I haven’t forgotten that day, was never again irresponsible.
A tale of love, marriage, and death, not necessarily in that order.
Her father named her Ann, a straightforward name – lone vowel and a consonant worth repeating – that literally and if allowed the liberty can be flawlessly conjoined with unlimited surnames. Should fate be determined by a name, then she is destined by something so simple and inherently adaptable to a life of many marriages. Never concurrent, of course. Consecutive marriages. Sequential marriages. Occasional marriages.
Burdened with possibilities, so to speak. Ann. A name that floats to the apex of one’s mouth, waiting for another name, that of a husband, to rescue it.
A blameless name that makes few demands. A name both blunt and lacking the basic ability to discern.
Therefore the bearer cannot be faulted for a deficit in discretion, desperate as she might be for a better half, for bolder support. Because, and I’m only posing this once, is it possible to make a mark in the world with a moniker as minimal as Ann Noe, absent even the privilege of a middle name, the total summarized in two uncompromising syllables? One can count the required letters on one hand, with the thumb to spare. Such a name is worth only six points on a Scrabble board. Hardly a winning play.
Ann in its most unadorned version, without a pretentious silent ‘e’, without an ‘a’ to create a palindrome. No clever twists in spelling or additional letters suggesting exotic origin.
Until she is well into her twenties, she does not remember family or friends, lovers or husbands (which, of course, we know there will be many) calling her “Annie” for either childish or affectionate reasons.
That’s when a man, brown-suited and official in attitude and stride and not affiliated with the aforementioned categories, escorts her from a morgue filled with freshly dead bodies and fragments of material from the presumed dead, to a near windowless room that smells of smoke and burnt coffee and something sweet but certainly not sweet. He asks her if she cares for cigarettes or a soft drink (“Pepsi or a Seven-Up” is what he offers) from a bank of vending machines. He calls her Annie, not once but several times. She instinctively knows that at last she might have met her match.
NO ONE KNOWS I AM HERE
She was named Bitsy, an inappropriate Christian name for a big-boned woman tromping throughout the world in her Birkenstocks. It is only after one dies, as Bitsy has, that relationships of time and place, events and causality, in the full spectrum of a life, are validated. The most elementary reference, that Bitsy reached her half-life in 1981 when the shoes were losing popularity, finally becomes apparent in 2016.
Inconvenient for Merced and Nell, but fitting for Bitsy, she chooses – somehow it appears a choice for a woman who defied travel alerts – to die in Burma, or Myanmar as it is now called. Bitsy always recited the names of countries as she’d originally learned them. She would’ve voiced her annoyance at the reference to Myanmar, and not Burma, on her death certificate, as if this signifies a focused assault on her formal education rather than the abrupt and contentious realignment of a government.
That Merced and Nell’s mother was in a country bereft of medical facilities doesn’t play a role in her death. Her heart attack was efficient: she’d be just as dead if brought to a Mayo emergency room and attended by a full complement of cardiac specialists. Which is not to say her daughters can’t resist speculating that had Bitsy been in an industrialized nation, she might have stood a chance.
While the swiftness of her demise provides some comfort, the burden of transporting her body stateside proves alternatively complex and expensive. With regard to the latter, no disrespect is intended as Bitsy herself would’ve pondered the irony of freight costs for the dead exceeding the price of a first-class ticket for the living.
Still they are required to bring her home.
In view of the country’s civil conflict and their familiarity in dealing with dead bodies daily, Myanmar seems altogether too eager to rid their borders of this one particular, foreign corpse. As if she’s an inconvenience, as if they know nothing about managing the departed.
The State Department insists the sisters be quick about the necessary decisions and arrangements. Cremation is the prudent option. With assurances from FedEx that they’re experienced in serving the Far East, Bitsy’s ashes are boxed and shipped.
A memorial is all that remains. With reluctance, the sisters schedule a modest event in the local library’s community center, capably arranged within the month by an otherwise disinterested staff. Nell’s own crew from her cable TV cuisine show cater the event, and respectfully make a showing.
Fewer than four dozen, the attendees mingle with an indifference typical when the expired is not close family or friend. Nell, a glass of champagne held tight against her cashmere sweater, lingers at the memorial table with its printed card (Birth – March 23, 1946, Death – February 29, 2016) and limited number of pictures.
A man whom she doesn’t recognize – must be a business associate of Nell’s husband Jackson – picks up a picture. “You are your mother in miniature.”
His reaches as if to brush his hand against her cheek, underscore the resemblance. She executes a dodge, tilting her head to hide a cluster of freckles just below her chin, and dismisses his comment with a well-practiced line that gives him no reason to linger. “In person, we weren’t at all alike.”
Bitsy’s parents are long dead, there were no siblings, and her half dozen surviving cousins who might have an interest in attending live too far away to justify the drive, even if to satisfy their curiosity.
Except one, Bitsy’s senior by a few years, but sharp and agile.
“Who’d have thought she’d be the cousin who’d travel? No telling what people do when they come into the money to do it.” This cousin picks at the relish dish, locating and popping a black olive into his mouth. He removes his glasses and wipes the lens on his napkin before dabbing his lips, puffed as pin cushions. He monopolizes Merced, the sleeve of her kimono-like jacket just missing a liver pâté. She notices his teeth, too even and white to be his own. If tasked to draw a caricature, she’d emphasize these features.
He continues. “Did she send you crazy postcards? I got a few early on. Before I moved. The post office isn’t forwarding mail forever.”
Merced doesn’t want to discuss money, and certainly not postcards. Postcards were Bitsy’s sole method for wishing her daughters happy birthday, or sharing condensed holiday sentiments. Often the postmark didn’t align with the pictured location, as if she was always in possession of a surplus from previous locales for those occasions that might have otherwise gone unacknowledged. Merced doesn’t want to be placed in the same recipient category as this cousin.
The cousin says, “All that traveling. Do you suppose she was looking for her birth mother?”
“I’m just saying, adopted people do that. Thinking they’ll find out who they are.”
As he turns to retrieve two pimento sandwich triangles, she deftly abandons him and edges towards Nell who is now talking with Mrs. Armagash.
Merced calculates Mrs. Armagash is near ninety. The last time they met she didn’t have the cane that now hangs from her arm. Aside from this, she has changed little. Her eyes are as gray and clouded as two oysters seated in the ripples of their shells. This afternoon Mrs. Armagash’s eyes are red-rimmed, the only pair of red-rimmed eyes at the gathering.
“I can’t imagine not seeing some taxi pulling up to the curb. There’s your mother, with that backpack – so inappropriate for a woman of a certain age – coming up the walk. She could’ve been gone five, six months, and poof, she appears! Not that she owed me an explanation. She meant more to me than a common boarder. Our endless games of canasta.” Mrs. Armagash smiles under the weight of the memory. “I felt guilty taking her money, mind you. But…she insisted, always paying her year in advance. Twenty-five years!”
Nell says, “She never thought of you as a landlord. Your home became her home.”
Merced is amused by Nell’s comment. Typical that she embellishes or romanticizes, or this time, constructs something that, in the absence of fact, nonetheless suits the occasion.
“Pouring rain, she never had so much as an umbrella,” Mrs. Armagash says. “She’d reach the front door, soaked through and through. Suppose she caught pneumonia? We don’t talk about pneumonia anymore. Always cancer. Cancer this, cancer that. But pneumonia kills too, but we don’t….”
“Actually, it was her heart,” Merced interjects.
“Oh. Well, then….” Mrs. Armagash’s oyster eyes well up with a fresh batch of tears.
“Will you be okay?” Nell asks. “Is there family close by?”
In spite of Mrs. Armagash’s long term relationship with Bitsy, neither daughter ever saw the room she rented, never ate a meal in Mrs. Armagash’s home, not even on that rare holiday that Bitsy was in town. Thus, they have no sense of Mrs. Armagash as part of a larger picture.
“I have a son. He visits me often.”
Early on both sisters agreed they’d never be trapped by guilt. They let this comment pass.
“I just meant, now that Bitsy is….” Nell prompts her.
“He won’t be moving in, no sir. You girls’ll want your mother’s things. She boxed them before every trip. Neat as a pin. Take your time.” She pauses as if working out a complex equation. “Then again, I should rent that room soon enough before that son of mine gets some wild idea I need a caregiver.”
Mrs. Armagash takes the cane from her arm. Her fingers are long, the skin uncommonly smooth. She leans into the cane, then turns. “I’ll never have another renter like your mother. More the friend than the renter. Friends are hard to come by, late in life. With family, you get what you get. No changing horses midrace. You’ll see.”
She taps the cane on the floor, as if keeping pace with her thoughts. “After a fashion I didn’t want her money. She’s the one who insisted.”
She angles the cane wider than necessary, insuring a clear path through the mourners who include Merced’s daughter Griffin as well as friends, business associates, that studio crew, and random library patrons who wander in, less curious than drawn by the availability of food. Jackson is inclined to explain this is a private affair and escort them out, but realizes it little matters, there’s ample to eat. He doesn’t want leftovers ending up in their refrigerator. Some of Nell’s latest culinary experiments are still lingering on the glass shelves.
Two attendees ask about the ashes. The daughters are annoyed, feel a small measure of disappointment that Bitsy’s remains didn’t arrive in time, but (and they both laugh about this), Bitsy was notoriously tardy. She herself theorized this was rooted in her childhood, when she lost track of time and arrived thirty minutes late to a spelling bee she was favored to win. Not only was she disqualified from the competition and faced with the inherent shame, but she was branded as someone indifferent to the schedules and priorities of others. More to the point, she seemed forever searching for those elusive thirty minutes, which she referenced whenever late, and which seemingly could never be regained. One can say that about time, that it is unforgiving.
“Bitsy, you’ll be late to your own funeral!” her own mother often chided.
And so, she is.
LIFE AS SEEN THROUGH A BLIND DOG'S EYES
Part One: Husbands, Sisters, Brothers, Mothers, Lovers, Dogs
Statistics on human vestigial tails, while limited in scope, are revealing. My job at Garrett/Edwards, a massive repository for data coveted by medical, professional, and academic communities, required that I only gather impartial facts and figures, not distill them into useful information. Still, I was uniquely interested in and qualified to present theorems and draw conclusions regarding this phenomenon because my point of reference is personal. I had one. My employer knew nothing of my research or anomaly.
All humans start out with tails. That is, a tail presents during the embryonic stage, comparatively large, and when viewed in sonogram, makes the fetus appear more fishlike than mammalian. For evolutionists, it is a brief, reverential reminder that our predecessors lived in the ocean until a few rogues ventured onto land.
But indeed, we are mammals. The cells soon enough receive the message that the elegant process of midline development – that critical business of molding a spinal cord and building vertebrae, the count of the bones precise and protective of the rope of nerves, the whole progression of folding unto itself and fusing to create a spinal column without compromising the labyrinth of multiplying dendrites – must occur. During this process the tail is not recognized as an appendage necessary for balance or swatting flies, or as in our closest evolutionary relatives, a prehensile accessory for tree swinging. Thus, it is repurposed, melding into what becomes the coccyx, mostly never to be heard from again.
Experts disagree on the exact number of vestigial tails out there, always defaulting to the rarity of the condition (no recorded reports exceed one hundred) that complicate rather than enhance fact-finding methodologies. What is irrefutable, centuries ago and independent of one another, Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus reported on such conditions, though neither as personal owners. This suggests several possibilities: the occurrence is not as rare as the numbers imply, or alternatively, a tail is something no one wants to hear or talk about, its existence easily and shrewdly hidden.
The aberration can take on a culture-based aura, from superstition or dire omen to annoying curiosity or aesthetic inconvenience. And yes, possibly deification, although my research never confirmed that.
More ominous than societal opinion, a tail is medically problematic, often a harbinger of associated, intricate syndromes or future physical impediments. While two categories exist – the true tail with muscle and given to voluntary movement at the discretion of its owner, and pseudo tails composed of fatty tissue encased in skin – the distinction has no bearing on the diagnostic process. From the lay perspective, the offending accessory appears simple enough to be nipped and sutured, a naïve solution. The majority of tails (81%) are tethered to critical underlying structures, such as that routinely ignored coccyx, leading to neurological and skeletal issues, specifically spinal dysraphism. Medical protocol dictates x-rays and MRIs, their results revealing subcutaneous misalignment before any surgical protocol is pursued. Predictions are made regarding future medical concerns, including compromised abdominal organs and ambulatory challenges that manifest in early adulthood.
I should mention there is a third category of tails that are not initially visible, that may remain hidden for years. Worrisome, deleterious tails intent on damaging the integrity of the back or interfering with other interior structures. Their existence is made apparent as the spinal column takes on a slow but unrelenting curvature. Few are prepared for the unseen tail, scoliosis the more conventional if erroneous prognosis.
When I was born in the late 50s, X-rays were the only non-invasive method for exploring my body’s blueprint. I was found to be in that 81 percentile, with a tethered midline fibrous tail and mild dysraphism. The tail was removed and re-sectioning completed before I had developed a Primary’s knowledge of it. Specifically, I have no firsthand memory and must rely on family lore.
Primaries, those who have that immediate, personal experience and recall of an event, were a category of people monitored by Garrett/Edwards. Temporary employees, which was my initial relationship with the data bank, and new hires work in the Department of Firsts, tracking Primaries, our entry level status and skills sufficient for the mostly clerical tasks.
So, while I did have a tail, I lacked a primary’s memory and had to settle on secondhand data, factual or distorted.
“You were such a good baby,” my mother often told me while I was growing up. “Of course, surgery was necessary. Just when your father and I thought we were out of the woods, you developed a fever. We drove to the hospital expecting to take you home, and there you were, wrapped in a sheet like a papoose. They’d shaved your head bald as a billiard ball to insert IVs. You had glorious hair when you were born. Well, not so curly as Caroline’s.”
Caroline would have been seven, no longer the only child, perpetually incensed by the diluted attention she now received, and unimpressed with my tail.
I can still feel three keloid scars on my head, like Braille, confirming my legacy, hidden beneath the hair that grew back. Oddly, the scar on my back, the greater assault, is so smooth as to not be detectable beneath my fingers.
“Imagine, making all those decisions about surgery,” my mother continued the telling of this saga, “and you weren’t even six months old.”
If within reach, she’d grasp my hand or pat my arm, as again she grew somber. “That kind of thing leaves an imprint on a parent. For months, I’d get up, maybe two or three in the morning, and look in on you. You were so quiet. I’d hold my breath until I’d see you, sitting in your crib, awake. Bright eyed. Accepting. Okay.
“You’d smile at me and make those coos, like mourning doves. ‘Woo-WOO-woo. Woo-WOO-woo.’” Her lips pursed, she’d create a soft cadence with a stronger second syllable, and a dip in the third. “Such a good baby.”
Twice a year throughout childhood I went in for x-rays where I was required to not move while my body was manually rotated into a variety of discomfited positions. In the late eighties, more advanced equipment took over and I was stuffed into MRI tubes, panicked over all that clanging and close-quartering.
When I was eight a stainless-steel cage – that was the layman’s name for the durable scaffolding that would flank the vertebrae – was surgically implanted. At twelve, and again at fifteen, the cage was replaced due to growth. After recuperating from the assaults, each became a part of me. I gave them no more thought than I’d give my knee caps or a lung, internal apparatus that functioned without conscious effort until the last was removed in adulthood.
The incisions were layered each on top of the previous. There were back and leg braces and physical therapy. As an adult, I’ve had three more surgeries, the first two prompted by newer technologies and the third to remove a benign cyst.
The appearance of that relatively innocuous cyst seemed cruel, as if my body was annoyed with all the attention given to a silly tail. The cyst was humbling, exquisite pain hovering close to a spinal cord that teams of physicians had worked for over four decades to protect. I am conditioned to the rules surrounding mild dysraphism, but the cyst had its own playbook and will continue to haunt me, the odds of another and another now higher because of the manifestation of the first.
Through all of this, I have one seven-inch, reusable scar. If I find myself in a fabric store, I am drawn to zippers. My doctor has told me that surgical-quality glue was employed in the most recent repair. Why not explore the efficiencies of a zipper?
My mother’s stories were so detailed, they blurred the lines between her memories and mine, leaving me to consider the possibility that I have borrowed her narratives, or unconsciously adapted these earliest accounts as my own. Although the pain and the isolation as I recovered from each surgery were mine alone.
Scott discovered the scar the first time we made love with the lights on, six months into dating and after making love many times with the lights off.
“What’s this about?” he asked. “Such a delicate, faint line.”
“Hmmm,” I murmured, my head buried in the pillow, the weight of his leg across the backs of mine. The nail of his finger ran the length of my lumbar vertebrae while I considered possible answers. I’d had lovers prior to Scott; upon discovering the scar all of them accepted my vague references to disc issues or spinal stenosis. Those inadequate answers were calibrated to the waning durability of each relationship.