While poetry on the page is certainly a temporal experience, I feel the poem as it exists in time most intensely when hearing poetry performed or simply reading it out loud. There is no skipping ahead, no dipping in and out, no returning to re-read, no absorbing a chunk of text all at once. Yes, the listening mind can wander, but even those moments lost to time’s forward motion only reinforce the experience of being present in both space and time at a reading. Poems that hinge on repetition highlight this difference between the poem on the page and the poem in person, as repetition allows itself to be passed over by the eye, but must be reckoned with (or endured) moment by moment as a poem unfolds aloud. This relationship with embodiment in time also links poetry out loud to ritual. I think of the Summary & Adenda to “Genesis I” in Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred:
Repetition & monotony are powers to be reckoned with; or as the lady said to M. Junod after having heard the tale of Nabandji, the toad-eating girl, “I should never have thought there could be so much charm in monotony.”
Charm, in the old sense. (441)
In my last post, I wrote about the magic of reading alongside others, briefly mentioning recent readings I gave alongside Ishion Hutchinson in Baltimore at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and alongside Deborah Bernhardt at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. Both of these poets (like Andrew Joron and Randall Mann, who I discussed in the previous post) have unique relationships with sound in their work, which made the experience of reading with them all the more powerful. From each reading, a particular poem that hinges on a relationship with repetition “haunts my ear” (borrowing a phrase here from Hopkins: “I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realised on paper”).
Hutchinson’s poem “The Wanderer” begins:
Still clear from its very first shout, “Thalatta! Thalatta!”
is the clamour every wave brings, 10,000 voices
arched into one, shaking the mountain clouds down . . .
All our heroes asleep in that aqua-grave, they will not drift
like Xenophon’s army to shore, and change their cry
to Triana’s “Tierra! Tierra!” Light, land: substance.
Both cries have congealed
into one coral wreath in my ears. I hear them everywhere I go.
While “Thalatta” is only repeated twice, not enough for the “charm in monotony” to set in on the page or in person, hearing the cry uttered aloud in Hutchinson’s own voice at the Pratt Library carried a particular power, especially since those, like myself, already familiar with the poem could feel the words reverberate through recognition both from Hutchinson’s written text in our memory and from the Greek text to which the poem alludes, Xenophon’s Anabasis, in which the thousands of Greeks cry upon sight “Thalatta! Thalatta!” (“The sea! The sea!”). Hutchinson bookends the poem with this Greek cry, and the mirror-image cry of Spanish sailor Rodrigo de Triana on Columbus’s ship La Pinta, “Tierra! Tierra!” (“Land! Land!”). Each double cry redoubles, as echo and allusion, as multilingual utterances and as the mind’s translations thereof. The poem engages in other kinds of repetition or echoing, for example, the phonic echo and the literal reference to repetition in the lines:
. . . Thunder
rifts the grain of his epochs, spinning Cortés from quartz,
repeating Pizarro along with all the names that depopulated
the trees of parrots and stuck a yellow disease in the sand.
One feels land and sea meeting in these repetitions, a kind of verbal enactment of Hutchinson’s imagination’s rootedness in the physicality of his origins (born in Port Antonio, Jamaica) in so many of his poems. Though “Thalatta! Thalatta! . . . Tierra! Tierra!” isn’t chiasmus, exactly, it has a kind of similar physical power in its symmetry. I didn’t know how much I wanted to hear “The Wanderer” read aloud until I did.
Here we feel how repetition functions as a kind of reaching out, in time as in space, the repeated words stretching toward their referents, while embodying the longing of sign not-quite-becoming signified, poem rising (almost) to the magic of incantation.
I received my first painting as a gift from grandparents (art collectors themselves) when I was four. They had commissioned a Louisiana artist to paint a small oil on canvas of Betsy Ross sewing the American Flag; I had a mild obsession with her and with Dolly Parton, my first divas. When I got to school after the winter break and classmates shared what they had received for Christmas (my elementary school was affiliated with the very conservative arm of the Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, so even saying “winter break” was viewed as odd), I got some pretty strange looks from my classmates when I said, proudly, “A painting of Betsy Ross!” In a more hostile environment, that could have translated to my later hearing “Kid, give me your lunch money,” but luckily it did not.
But growing up around art, principally because of my grandparents’ collection of primarily Southern art, allowed me to understand that creativity had value: social, economic, and familial. I loved walking around my grandparents’ house as if it were a gallery or museum and hearing Billy or Dot (they, being far too fabulous, bristled at the idea of any traditional monikers to mark them as “advanced in age”) talk about Walter Anderson, Andrew Bucci, Bill Dunlap, Theora Hamblett, William Hollingsworth, or Clementine Hunter, among others. And there was always a rotating cast of characters in the collection, as I understood that paintings were bought and sold rather regularly, as Billy, Hickey Freeman clad and pocket squared, has always been one to pursue actively deal after deal. In fact, just a few months ago, as I walked through the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, I saw one of Theora Hamblett’s best works, Making Sorghum, and I was taken back to Sunday night dinners at Dot and Billy’s house on Ridge Drive, where I first encountered that particular work presiding over their mantle.
That Dot and Billy started my collection has been one of their greatest gifts to me. And they continue to grow my collection, giving what they love—an exchange that is incredibly intimate and purposeful, curating a sense of taste in another generation. Or, maybe more appropriately, prodding another generation to develop a sense of taste, a point of view, an aesthetic bent that appreciates and places value on art and its communicative power.
The apartment where I live is a gorgeous space—part of an Italianate duplex built in 1870 on the campus of Western Reserve Academy. And every inch of wall space has something hanging: more is, indeed, more. I love the juxtaposition of things and try not to overcomplicate the curation or design of what’s going where. Work by a Sufi artist from Morocco is nestled amongst painted pieces of driftwood by a Bahamian artist; a photo of Square Books in Oxford, MS, is juxtaposed next to a photo of a man pealing apples on a houseboat in Kashmir by the incomparable Jane Rule Burdine. Everett McCourt’s haunting photograph that nods to Passolini and Salo hangs next to a visionary work (one that reminded me of Guernica) by Jaime Makinde, a Cuban artist working in Germany. Each wall is a visual conversation.
What I think draws me to collecting art, besides a familial predisposition, is an obsession with the narratives attached to, inside, and surrounding the art on the walls. There’s the story of the artist, the story of the canvas, the story of acquiring. Cue William Carlos Williams, “No ideas but in things.” Some pieces make visual arguments; all seem to invite the viewer to look closely or differently, in a similar way to what literary language does: adjusts our ways of making sense of the world. As much as I collect things that are interesting or challenging or beautiful, I collect the stories that swirl around those things. Is a Southerner really a Southerner who doesn’t value narrative?
I love how the advent and growth of the e-book puts pressure on the printed book to become an art object as well. When I realized that my first book was coming into the world, I wondered what it would look like—how a cover or piece of cover art could capture some aspect of the grief or love or anger that went into the book’s construction. The physical experience of the book—visual, tactile—is part of the aesthetic experience.
I had recently moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and was spending time getting to know the city; I fell in love with Forest Park, a historic neighborhood that easily blended beautiful residences and a fun retail and dining scene. One Saturday, I went into an art gallery that was in a converted bungalow—not forbidding or severe as some galleries can be (though, admittedly, I am often still drawn to these spaces as well).
When I opened the door, I saw a cluster of small-scale collages on wood panels all by a Chattanooga-based artist, Hollie Chastain. I saw several collages that I thought presented interesting opportunities for a book cover. After snapping some pictures and sending them to Charlie Jensen, the book’s editor and my dear friend, we agreed that the piece called “Losing Track of the Tragic Seasons” was perfect for the book. Hollie was generous enough to allow us to use the image for the book, and she also then inspired me to become an avid collector of her work.
Hollie also provided stunning artwork for The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South, and she also fulfilled a commission for three of my favorite pieces, collages on book covers that pay homage to three Mississippi writers: William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams. I provided her with a few quotes by each author, and then let her do what she felt best. I really did see the words of these important writers in new ways, thanks to Hollie’s vision.
While in D.C. for AWP this year, I went to a great gathering at Sandra Beasley and her husband Champneys Taylor’s house. I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk with Champneys before, but I knew that he was an accomplished artist. By the end of the evening, we had plans to go together to see a show that he was a part of; even better, it was hanging in the Austrian Embassy.
So while panels and book fairs and hotel bar conversations waged on, I went to the Embassy to see the show and immediately found myself drawn to his work: color, texture, gesture all demanding more consideration and appreciation of the concept at work. Each painting could be read or experienced variously—welcoming and hospitable, and I appreciated his commentary on the iterative process that sounded analogous to working with language.
A trip to his studio in NW D.C. gave more insight into the development of his work, and I found myself coming back to two canvases every few minutes. It was like a match on Tinder, without a bio or swiping or awkward conversation, and now those two paintings have found their way from D.C. to Ohio. And, through the whole process, I was reminded that art catalyzes growth, connection, and community; what is often created in solitude is celebrated communally.
When I read proposed budgets that talk of the intent to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, I realize that the burden shifts to individuals and the private sector to support creative pursuits. Once again, we have to put our energy and money where our values are: buying each other’s books, supporting the presses and magazines that support the work of authors, buying art that speaks to us and hanging it on our walls, listening to the stories that people have to tell, embracing the role of patron as well as artist. Let’s not allow a budget proposal to stifle creative production; instead, let’s continue to create, collect, and celebrate with abandon.
I’m not suggesting we just accept this erasure of public funding to the arts—not at all. We do have to be prepared to think, act, and fund important work and projects through different channels and keep talking about (and voting for and lobbying for) the necessity of the arts in a creative, free, and productive state.
Into pelt and sheen, rattans bond, tight-
slatted. At rest, sheaved
from the front, it is wickerwork, canebrake,
quiver of arrows, but when
provoked it erupts as bayonets, asterisk, threshing floor,
Cupid in a fury.
Its strategy is not precision, but exuberance—
a briery boast. Let the arrows fly—
gold with lead. Florescent-
quilled, in dark makeup, like the bass player
in an 80s band, it announces its eccentricity—
then fades, making meager
its own spotlight. But no porcupine can shoot
its quills, so as in any romance, its
pierce depends on flair and
proximity. Maligned by lumberjacks and commuters alike,
it has been maimed, poisoned,
and shotgun-blared. They do not
accommodate you—your salt drive,
your night-sleuthing, your implacable whiskers.
But we all have unlidded nights; we all have
thorns. The same gaze that forgets
the rose’s quills makes a bonfire
out of yours. But thorniness
is no more than an erratic
smooth. Your paws are polished
and pebbled. The underside
of your tail, mildly bristled to gain
purchase as it barnacles in the branches. Above the tail
appears a bald spot with shorter barbs—
a meadow, a rosette that, like an open
flower, broadcasts a pungent aroma—a warning that
accompanies the splayed quills.
I choose you, my escaped
convict—you run with your stripes still on you.
Although you’re slow and nearsighted,
when you unveil your ribbons, fantailed, I feel
as though I am entering
lightspeed. From out of the bare serene, the stars
all striate—and you arch in monochrome,
like a rainbow above
a distant hill in a silent film.
When the Todd family was in a car accident, the women of Our Lady of the Lake sent around a sign-up for a dinner delivery schedule. This was always the first course of action for the community, who wanted to feel helpful and show their concern while still getting their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet on time.
The Todd family was one of those darling groupings of four: dad, mom, and two daughters only a year apart. The older girl, Charlie, was small for her age, so when the girls were young, their mother dressed them like twins. The family always sat in the same pew on the right side of the sanctuary, three rows from the front. The girls’ heads were a pair of matching ponytails or braids topped with bows of coordinating colors. When they reached middle school and stopped dressing alike, the girls still sat in the same places, their heads still the same color of hair.
The women of Our Lady of the Lake soon learned that the Todd family would be in the hospital for many days, many more than expected, so they set about reorganizing the dinner delivery schedule. Mrs. Todd was in back surgery; Mr. Todd’s leg was in traction; and Charlie Todd was in a coma. Only Mamie, the younger sister, walked away, and the women of Our Lady of the Lake held their breath wondering what to do with her. They were relieved to learn that Mamie had been taken in by Joyce Phillips, their neighbor. She was a Baptist, but very sweet, not like the other Baptist women in Nashville who wouldn’t invite the Catholics to be in their Bunko groups. Joyce was a nice woman. She lost her own son in a car wreck the year before. Drunk driving, they whispered, and agreed that taking care of Mamie was exactly what her mourning heart might need right now.
Sister Lawrence suggested putting together a visitation schedule for the hospital, but Mellie Lotts pointed out that when she was in the hospital for her kidney stones, she actually preferred not to have visitors at that time. Everyone agreed they didn’t want to be in the way, so only Sister Lawrence would go to the hospital and report back as to how the family was doing. The women of Our Lady of the Lake felt good about this. They wanted news of the family. They were very concerned.
That Sunday, the church took up a special collection for the Todd family. The women made sure their husbands put cash in the basket. They wanted to donate, but they weren’t sure what size of donation, and they didn’t want to appear cheap. The church raised a handsome sum for the family, whose medical expenses were growing and growing. The women of Our Lady of the Lake speculated about the cost of such a wreck while sipping their coffee in a huddle after Mass.
“I heard the wreck was Hugh’s fault,” Allison Scruggs said.
Someone asked if she suspected alcohol, but she said she didn’t think it was alcohol, though Hugh Todd was known to enjoy his beer. They shook their heads and wondered how Ruby Todd was going to feel when she realized her husband almost killed them.
“I would go crazy,” Mellie said.
They all nodded and hummed, Mm hm.
The next week, they took their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They went back-to-school shopping and checked out estate sales around the corner from their homes.
That Sunday at Mass, Father Arnold talked about the Todd family during his homily. The congregation grew still and solemn. Older women squinted at young women with squealing babies until those new mothers disappeared into the crying room. The women of Our Lady of the Lake were especially interested in news of Ruby Todd.
Father Arnold asked that everyone bow their heads as he uttered a special prayer for Charlie, who was still in a coma and struggling to survive. Had it not been for Sister Lawrence, Charlie may have died. When Sister Lawrence visited the hospital, she noticed that the comatose girl seemed uncomfortable. Charlie’s head was shaved with a halo of bandage across the front of her scalp, yet Sister Lawrence could sense something else. She asked the doctors if Charlie suffered any other injuries, and the doctors looked at her with blank, pale faces. They rushed Charlie to X-ray where they discovered her intestines were perforated. She had lain that way for a week.
The women of Our Lady of the Lake were relieved that they had decided to send Sister Lawrence to the hospital.
“Can you imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t sent her?” Allison Scruggs asked. The women shook their heads, refusing to think about it.
The next week, they took their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They paid water bills and reorganized the spice rack. They said a prayer for the Todd family at dinner each night.
That Sunday, the seventh and eighth graders held a bake sale for the family. The women of Our Lady of the Lake sliced pies and baked cookies. They set up a table with balloons and streamers and took pictures of their kids with chocolate smears on their lips. They had sweethearts, those kids. The women of Our Lady of the Lake were so proud. It was a mild August day, so kids played tag on the church grounds while the women stood in the shade and sipped their coffee in a huddle.
Someone mentioned that Ruby Todd went home from the hospital that week. Someone else mentioned that Mamie was still living with Joyce next door.
“How can she let someone else take care of her child?” Mellie asked.
They shook their heads as if they wouldn’t waste a second getting their own children back.
“Where’s Hugh?” Mellie asked.
“He left the hospital even before Ruby,” Allison said. “I think he’s been home for a week.”
They sipped their coffee, their lips tight when they swallowed.
The next week, they took their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They hosted dinner clubs and bought tickets to the back-to-school carnival at the high school. Allison Scruggs took dinner to the Todd family on Wednesday night, a casserole made from chicken and condensed soup.
That Sunday, Father Arnold said Charlie was coming out of her coma, though she was paralyzed on the left side of her body. The congregation bowed their heads and sent up silent prayers, then crossed themselves in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was a blessing she was not dead, he said. It was a tragedy she was not whole, they thought. They crossed themselves again.
After Mass, the kids tugged on their mothers’ shirts wanting to know when they would go home.
“Don’t interrupt,” the mothers said. They sipped their coffee in a huddle.
“Did you see the family?” Mellie Lotts asked.
“Only Hugh and Ruby,” Allison said. “Mamie is still next door.” Someone asked why she didn’t come over for dinner.
“I don’t think she visits often,” Allison said. She waited out a long pause as everyone looked at her, then she added in a whisper, “She didn’t look good.” She meant Ruby Todd.
“Well, of course not,” someone said. “She’s been through hell.”
“I mean, she’s not well,” Allison said. She said “well” with emphasis. She widened her eyes.
“Well, of course not,” Mellie Lotts said. “She’s been through hell.”
They nodded and sipped their coffee. The kids came and tugged on their shirts. The mothers brushed them away.
They took another sip and looked into the distance over their cups.
The next week, they took their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They checked over math homework and went to hot yoga on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. They complained to their husbands when the bug guy or gardener or electrician didn’t show. The husbands promised to give the bug guy or mower or electrician a call. Mellie Lotts took dinner to the Todd family on Wednesday night: two containers of Italian meatball soup, enough to freeze some for later.
That Sunday, a visiting priest performed Mass. He was from India and difficult to understand, but no one wanted to say so for fear of looking insensitive. He talked about a dove and a rose, and how the dove loved the rose, but the rose did not love the dove. The dove bloodied itself on the rose’s thorns, trying to be close to it. No one could understand him.
After Mass, someone mentioned that Father Arnold had taken the collected donation to the Todd family. The women of Our Lady of the Lake were very proud of this, but they didn’t want to discuss money, so they talked about the Todd family instead.
“I didn’t get to see her,” Mellie said, meaning Ruby Todd. “Her mother met me at the door and took the soup.”
“It’s good she has her mother to help her,” someone said. They all nodded.
“My son said Mamie is back at school,” Allison Scruggs said.
There were many oh-goods and wonderfuls until they realized Mamie was still living with Joyce. No one mentioned this. They couldn’t help but wonder about Mamie. About Hugh. About what they would do in Ruby’s place. They took sips of coffee and looked into the distance over their cups. Their husbands waved, ready to go.
That week, it rained. They did not take their sons to karate. They let their daughters skip ballet. They noticed that the bug guy or the mower or the electrician did not show up again. Their husbands forgot to call. The women got the numbers and called the bug guy or the mower or the electrician themselves. One of the women ordered pizza to be delivered to the Todd family on Wednesday night.
That Sunday, Hugh showed up at Mass. The women of Our Lady of the Lake trained their eyes on him from their seats. He sat in the usual Todd family spot, the three seats next to him, a hole. After Mass, he shook Father Arnold’s hand. He patted the backs of their husbands and laughed.
The women sipped their coffee and wondered how he could laugh. No one said this, though.
“Where’s Ruby,” Allison said.
They all nodded and watched their husbands pat Hugh’s back, too, and laugh. They wondered if their husbands would go to Mass without them. They wondered what was so funny.
The next week, they took their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They missed yoga. The bug guy and the mower and the electrician came and raised the prices. The women of Our Lady of the Lake didn’t tell their husbands. They just wanted it done. No one took dinner to the Todd family that week. No one noticed the empty space on the dinner delivery schedule.
That Sunday, Ruby came to Mass with Hugh. They arrived late, and Ruby shuffled in using a walker. The women of Our Lady of the Lake sat up straighter, hoping to make eye contact. Everyone watched as Hugh helped his wife to her seat. Only once did a new family sit in the Todd family’s usual spot, but most Sundays, the seats remained empty. Ruby moved slowly, her back stiff. She eased into her place, and Hugh put his arm on the back of the pew behind her. The women stared at the back of her head, trying to see inside of it. They wondered if she was happy to see them.
After Mass, they waited for Ruby to join the huddle, but they couldn’t find her.
“Where is she?” Mellie asked, looking around, until they saw Sister Lawrence, helping Ruby out of the bathroom. They couldn’t believe how slowly she moved. She leaned on her walker with a grimace.
They saw their husbands laughing with Hugh, the men patting each other on the backs. Allison Scruggs took hold of Mellie Lotts’s arm. They moved the huddle to the chair where Ruby was sitting.
“Thank you,” Ruby said, out of breath. “Thank you for everything you have done for my family.”’
The women beamed and nodded and said they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“How are you?” Allison Scruggs asked.
“I’ve been better,” Ruby said.
The women nodded and sipped their coffee.
Again, the huddle of men laughed and patted each other’s backs. Again, the women wondered what was so funny.
“Have you heard about my Charlie,” Ruby said—she didn’t ask. The women held their breath. “She’s paralyzed,” Ruby said.
“We heard,” Mellie Lotts said. “It’s a terrible thing.”
The women nodded and sipped their coffee.
“I can’t take care of her,” Ruby said. “She’s still in the hospital, but if she gets out, I don’t know.”
Someone asked about her mother.
“She had to go back to Ohio,” Ruby said. “She’ll come back, though.”
“Is Hugh taking care of you, then?” Allison Scruggs asked.
Ruby smoothed her hair and licked her lips in that way of moving while thinking. She put her hands on her thighs and spread her fingers over them.
“He tries,” Ruby said.
The women nodded and sipped their coffee.
“Well, it’s wonderful that Mamie can stay with Joyce Phillips,” Mellie Lotts said. “We were all going to offer, but when we learned of the situation, we heard she was already there.”
“Joyce is a saint,” Ruby said. And right next door, someone said. They all nodded.
“I’ve only seen Mamie once,” Ruby said. “In the hospital.” She looked up at the cups in the women’s hands. “Can I have some coffee?” she asked.
“Oh my god, I meant to offer,” Mellie said and ran off toward the coffeepot.
“Why doesn’t Mamie come to see you?” Allison asked.
“I’m not sure,” Ruby said.
“You said she came to the house,” Allison said. “You told me when I brought you dinner.”
“Who? Mamie?” Ruby asked.
“Yes,” Allison said. “You said it was nice to visit with her.”
Ruby looked off into a distance past Allison’s hip.
“I don’t remember that,” she said.
Mellie came back with the coffee. The women heard the loud talking of the husbands who stood over by the double doors to the parking lot.
“Are you angry?” Mellie blurted. “Are you angry at Hugh?” She handed Ruby her coffee as the women held their breath.
Ruby put both hands on her coffee cup, brought it to her mouth, and blew.
“All I feel is pain,” she said and took a sip.
The women nodded. The coffee burned in their stomachs. They glanced at their husbands who were waving, ready to leave.
“Thanks, ladies,” Hugh said, coming over. “I’m sure she’s tired of just me all the time.”
There were many no-nos and of-course-nots until they realized he was taking her away. As Ruby grunted, trying to stand, Allison reached toward her but Hugh said to let Ruby do it herself.
“It’s the only way she’s going to get stronger,” Hugh said. And the women cringed as they watched Ruby rise from her seat. They imagined her pain, but they couldn’t feel it.
Ruby jerked the walker toward Hugh.
“He’s right,” Ruby said. “It’s the only way.”
As she shuffled off, the women of Our Lady of the Lake saw their husbands waving. They felt their children pulling on their arms, but they watched Ruby hobble along.
“Ow,” they said finally, and wanted to shake free, but they didn’t. They watched Ruby shuffle up the sidewalk toward the parking lot, trying to imagine what she was feeling, but they couldn’t; of course, they couldn’t. As the children pulled and the coffee burned and their husbands waved with aggressive sighs, the women of Our Lady of the Lake turned from Ruby’s image there, at the top of the hill near the parking lot. She stood hunched over her walker, stiff and alone. The women moved away from the window and put their hands on their children’s heads. They waved back at their husbands with the promise that they would come, so everyone could get ready for the week ahead. They would take their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They would put pot roasts in slow cookers and share the recipes. No one would mention Ruby. It was the only way to keep going as if everything would be OK. They needed to believe this was the worst it could get.
Stan had been keeping a secret from those around him for a very long time. A big secret. He kept the secret from his wife. He kept the secret from his parents, who had since passed on. He kept the secret from his two children, who had moved out of the house. And he kept the secret from his brother and sister, with whom he rarely spoke.
A year ago the secret had been the size of a golf ball, or more accurately, a baby mouse. He wouldn’t have discovered it at all if he hadn’t started seeing a masseuse to deal with the neck and upper back pain he’d been having. “You might want to have that lump looked at,” his masseuse had said. “It moves a bit when I touch it, almost like it’s alive.” Of course, he never did anything about it, the same way he never did anything about his dream of traveling now that his kids had grown, the same way he failed to face his quickly approaching retirement. His own parents had retired early then wasted away with nothing to do, until each had forgotten who they were, who the other was, until they’d forgotten everything about their puny lives.
The secret kept growing. He often woke complaining of a stiff neck or soreness behind the shoulder blade. But his wife was used to his complaints, so she ignored him. And at sixty-four, he was used to aches and pains, so he ignored them as well. Life could have continued on like this until long into their retirement when they spent their days sitting in opposite rooms, he watching nonstop cable news and obsessing over the state of the Republican party, and she crocheting blankets in a little craft room she’d set up for herself in the basement, blankets piled high along every wall. He could have lived on that way until he passed quietly from this world, his children saying a few words at the funeral, then slipping back into their normal routines until, after a few years, he was gone from even their memories. Yes, he could have done this. But the secret could not.
By this point, it was as large as a baseball, and it had started to move. Not much at first, mostly it restricted itself to his neck and upper back. But over time, its territory grew. At first, Stan was a bit surprised by the occasional shifting of the lump in his back. But then he found it oddly pleasing. He would absentmindedly prod it while eating breakfast or reading the paper, poking it to see if he could get it to move. When it would, he’d experience a small thrill as little claws scurried across his back. He’d then return to his routine only to find himself poking the lump again a few minutes later and waiting for the tickle of little feet. For the most part, it didn’t move much during the day, and for the most part, Stan didn’t worry about it.
The problem came at night. He’d always been a back sleeper, and now he couldn’t do it. In the king-sized bed he and his wife shared, he could shift and flail about trying to get comfortable and not bother her in the slightest. He’d never been good at sleeping on his side, but now it was near impossible. As soon as he fell asleep on his left side, he’d feel those little feet scamper to that very side as if the secret sought the warmth between his back and the bed. Like a cat kneading a pillow, it would dig its claws into the muscle below his shoulder blade (its favorite spot) or the trapezius (its second favorite spot), and he would have to switch sides to get a few minutes of peace before it would decide it wanted to switch sides, too. Then there were the times it had the “night crazies” and would scurry about his back in circles and zigzags so that he had no hope for even a few minutes of rest.
Still, Stan was resilient, better than most at ignoring the aches and pains and lack of sleep that constituted the body’s only form of communication with the man. Despite the growing pain in his upper back he went about his days much as he had before. Certainly, he used a little more Advil than the average man. He was a bit sleepier than usual, but closing his office door and taking a midafternoon catnap usually solved that problem.
It was only when he realized the secret was eating him from the inside, had been eating him all along, that things began to change. At first, he tried to compensate by increasing his caloric intake, but that could only work for so long. Soon the pain of shredded muscle and torn sinew became difficult to ignore. No amount of Advil could hide it.
The first thing he tried was talking to his wife. “Something is happening in my back,” he told her late one night. “I think I might be dying.” She was already in bed, when he slipped in beside her. She lowered her book and asked what kind of insurance he had.
“I’m not worried about whether it will be covered,” he said.
“Not that kind of insurance.” She folded her arms over her chest the way a funeral director might prepare a corpse. “Life insurance. How much do you have?” Her gaze remained fixed on the ceiling as if somehow she could see through it to the pattern of stars beyond.
“I said I’m afraid I’m dying, not that I’m going to die.” He pulled the covers to his chin as if to protect himself.
“What’s the difference?” She turned her head to face him but not her body.
“There’s all the difference in the world!” He rolled away from her. “Do me a favor,” he said, “and take a look at my back.” He pulled up his nightshirt.
She groaned, then reluctantly inspected his back. “You’ve got a lump just under your right shoulder blade,” she said. “It looks pretty big.” She touched it, and as she did, the lump moved down his spine, resting in his lower back.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
“Yes. It looks like you’ve got something in there.” She picked up her book and continued reading.
“That’s it!” he said. “That’s all you’re going to say.” He pulled down his nightshirt and sat up, facing her. When she didn’t seem to notice, he pulled the book from her hands and tossed it across the bed.
“Hey!” She shot him a look. “What did you do that for?”
Pain tore through the muscle along his upper spine. Like teeth ripping.
“Ow! Shit!” was all he managed to say. He jumped out of bed and turned on the light. Again, he pulled up his shirt. “It bit me! Hard! Can you see anything?”
“What do you want me to say?” She ran her finger along the lump. “It’s a lump. I don’t think a lump can bite you, but I’m not a doctor.”
He went to the bathroom and tried in vain to get a good view in the mirror of the lump on his back.
“You know what they say,” his wife went on. “These things are the body’s way of trying to tell you something. You should have it checked out. And while you’re at it, raise whatever you have for life insurance.” She returned to her book, and he returned to bed. Silence settled over them.
It wasn’t until the lump was eight or nine inches across and three or four thick that he decided to see a doctor. It hadn’t been an easy decision for him as it meant taking the afternoon off work, and he’d had loads of work to finish since announcing his retirement. Taking the afternoon off work meant he would have time to himself, something he still hadn’t grown accustomed to since his daughter had left the house the year before. The idea of sitting in his favorite chair, maybe lighting a fire, picking out one of the many books on his shelves he’d never found time to read should have been appealing to him, but it filled him with dread.
“You’ve got a rat in your back.” The doctor didn’t even bother to line the X-rays up along the lighted panels so he could see. Instead, he handed him the manila envelope containing the X-rays as if they were secret documents.
“Can you get it out?” He scratched his neck below the beard he’d started to grow.
“There’s really no point.” The doctor wrote something down on his prescription pad. “I don’t see any long-term consequences.”
“But it’s eating me from the inside out?” The room seemed to grow dim, as if one of the fluorescents had burned out.
“The internal damage appears to be minimal.” The doctor handed him the prescription. “Eat well-balanced meals, exercise, and take one of these each day, and that should compensate for any muscle loss.”
“What about disease? You know, the bubonic plague and all that?” He couldn’t help scratching again and wondered if rats carried mange, too.
“You’ve got more of a chance of being hit by a car than dying from the black death.” The doctor laughed as if he’d made a joke, then held out his hand.
A trail of rat droppings, Stan thought. Little pieces of what I’ve been.
He didn’t want to go home. The idea of being there alone was too much. He thought about stopping at the mall, but it was early December and the parking lots would be full to the brim with holiday shoppers. He could stop at Stella’s, his favorite coffee shop. Yes, that would do the trick. He took a slight detour and minutes later he’d arrived. But the storefront looked empty, dark. A sign posted on the door announced the arrival of a new cell-phone store. It couldn’t be. He’d just been to Stella’s the week before. He got out of his car and peered in the window. Bare wires stuck out of the wall where the espresso machine used to be. Scraps of dry wall lay scattered about the floor. Now there was nothing for it but to go home.
Even so, we are here.
He whipped around, instinctively sticking his hand out before him as if to ward off the source of the voice. But nothing was there. He was sure he’d heard it, a deep voice, an old man’s gruff voice.
“Here where?” he replied, as if speaking to someone. “The coffee shop? It’s not here anymore.” He had to laugh. One less thing to do in his retirement.
He couldn’t remember when entering his house had become difficult. At least entering it alone. The silence. The emptiness. The way the pillows tilted on the couch. The way the kitchen chairs seemed pushed out at odd angles. The way his wife’s sweater lay cast aside on the end table. All of it accusing. All of it demanding something of him, something he’d buried deep long ago. Then there was the tick, tick, ticking of the clocks in every room. There was no escaping the clocks. The reminder that he’d had his chance.
Once home, he picked the first book he spotted on the bookshelf. The title didn’t matter, most of the books he’d never bothered to read, and even if it were one he’d read, he’d most certainly forgotten he’d read it by now. He lit a fire, made himself a coffee, and sat in his favorite chair, pleased with himself for facing his fear, confident in the fact that he could hide from the silence, shelter himself from the accusation of pillows and sweaters and chairs behind the cover of a good book. But scarcely had he opened his book when he thought he heard the voice again. The same one he’d heard in front of Stella’s.
He closed the book. Short breaths like unfortunate stutters. The thing scurried across his back. It couldn’t really be a rat. The doctor had to be wrong. He’d find a new doctor. What kind of quack told you that you had a rat in your back then told you not to worry about it? He put the book down and waited. Intent. Daring the silence. The second hand on the mantel clock ticked.
Details darken a life until we forget the depths of our mistakes.
The voice again. He walked quickly to the bathroom, stopped in front of the vanity mirror, almost afraid to turn on the light. Some other skull crept out from behind his skin. Some other creature stared back at him, vague-eyed, from empty sockets. He turned on the light and caught sight of a rat scurrying across the floor behind him. A big one. A filthy one with matted hair and a long, black tail. He grabbed the porcelain toothbrush holder and turned, holding it aloft as if to strike. But the rat wasn’t there. It had been heading in the direction of the tub. There was no way it could have escaped.
He turned back to the mirror, and there it was. The rat raised on its hind legs, scratching desperately at the other side of the mirror. He smashed the toothbrush holder down against the reflection of the rat. The mirror cracked. The rat stopped for a moment, then started scratching again. He brought the toothbrush holder down hard again on top of where the rat’s head should be. This time the porcelain shattered in his hand, cutting the tender flesh of his palm. Either in fear of its life or incensed by the sight of blood, the rat clawed furiously at the mirror. He went to his garage in search of something heavier, bringing back a large crescent wrench from his unused toolbox. But when he returned to the bathroom, the rat was gone.
He was seeing things. That was it. He needed to talk to someone. To calm down. His wife would be at work until after five, and she always hated it when he called her there. He could call his son, though he’d probably be sleeping the day away. And that would start them on the same old argument. What are you doing with your life? Why don’t you have a job? No point in going there. He should call his daughter. He knew he should call her. He’d barely talked to her since she’d left the house the year before. Why wouldn’t he call her? He didn’t have an answer. How long had it been since he’d talked with her? Three months? They’d always been close. He thought they’d always been close. But then why hadn’t he called her? And when she called, why did he let his wife answer? If she asked to talk with him, he always had some excuse, something that needed to be done around the house. Had something come between them? He didn’t think so. But then why wouldn’t he talk with her?
She picked up before the phone even rang on his end.
“How did you know I was calling?” He couldn’t help but feel a pang at hearing her voice. The knowledge that she would be mad at him, maybe feel betrayed that he’d made so little effort. Better that than face the silence. Better that than wait for the claws to tear into his flesh again.
“I didn’t,” she replied. “I was about to call Brad, and when I picked up you were there.”
“So, you’re not married yet?”
“No.” She laughed a bit. He hoped she’d do that, hoped he could diffuse some of the anger. “You’ve been a stranger,” she continued. “Everything OK?”
He opened his mouth to speak, to say something, though he wasn’t sure exactly what, when a sharp pain clawed through him.
“Ow!” He nearly dropped the phone.
“Dad, what’s going on?”
“Nothing.” He could barely squeeze the word out. “Just a little chest pain.” It felt like the rat was rummaging around inside his heart, his lungs. He was having trouble catching his breath.
“You’re scaring me,” she replied. “Is Mom there? Is anyone there with you?”
He didn’t want this to happen. Their first conversation in so long, and now she was frightened. He’d wanted to tell her. Needed to. Yes! That’s why he’d called. He was going to tell her the secret. It was time she knew the truth. Time she understood who he was. He’d tell her, then everything would be better between them.
“Alicia . . .” He wasn’t at all sure what he’d say, only that he had to say it. “Alicia . . .” His throat went gravelly, as if he would lose his voice.
“Dad? You don’t sound well.”
“I have something I need to tell you,” he began again, choking back the phlegm. “You were only a child at the time . . .”
“Dad? What are you talking about?”
“Alicia . . . I don’t expect you to understand . . .” He tried to continue, but the words were buried deep.
“What is it, Dad? What do you want to say?”
“I have to tell you something . . .” He started again, digging deeper than he’d ever gone before. Through layers and layers of rock. Past all the walls he’d erected. The vaults he’d locked tight. He was almost there. Only one door lay between him and the secret. He put his hand on the knob and hesitated. What was he waiting for?
“Dad?” his daughter broke in. “You’re not making sense.”
He almost shouted “Shut up!” but managed to stifle it, instead shushing his daughter.
“Dad! What the hell . . .”
He willed himself back at the door, his hand once again on the knob. “Open it!” he told himself, then, already sensing the weakness, tried again. “Open it.” But the lack of resolve tugged at the words, pulling them deeper into the vault even as he spoke. He couldn’t, no wouldn’t do it. His knees buckled, and he whimpered like a kicked dog.
“I’m calling Mom,” his daughter said. “Just stay there, and I’ll call you back.”
“No, don’t hang up, sweetie!” But it was too late. She was gone. He set the phone down as something moved through him, a dark scuttling as if through trash. He ran to the large, round dining room mirror. One of the last things his mother had given him before she died. He lifted his shirt and cocked his head around to see if he could locate the rat. How could he not? It was as big as a football, maybe bigger. He looked like Quasimodo. He tried to hit it but couldn’t reach much beyond his shoulder and only ended up hitting himself. The rat seemed to be content now in the middle of his back, tearing little bits of muscle and patting them into something, some shape. What was it making? The answer frightened him more than the secret. He knew only that he wouldn’t wait around to find out.
He hadn’t realized how easy it would be to buy large quantities of rat poison. He could mix a heavy dose of the small, green pellets with bourbon and be rid of the rat before his wife arrived home from work. He wouldn’t take enough to kill himself, just enough to kill the rat before it made whatever it was making. And the bourbon, well, that was to ease the pain. Rat poison couldn’t be pleasant. He’d thought of everything. But mostly he’d thought of the fact that he’d been carrying this thing inside him for far too long, and now it had affected his relationship with his wife, his children. His daughter, for God’s sake! When had the secret come between them? He needed the thing out now. He needed to be done with it. One way or another.
He poured a whole box of d-CON into the bourbon and sat in his favorite chair to sip it. Not bad. He couldn’t taste the poison at all, so he figured what the hell and downed the entire glass. Then he waited, just as he’d done earlier that morning. He looked at the same pillows, but their tilt no longer seemed to bother him. Same with the angle of the chairs and his wife’s sweater. Perhaps the poison would work after all. But then there was the incessant ticking of the mantel clock. He took it outside and threw it in the trash can. On his way in, he stumbled, nearly losing his balance. Something was not quite right with his head. The air around him went wavy. Carefully, he felt his way along the wall toward his chair.
A tormented sorrow burrowed along his spine. He doubled over. So much for the bourbon numbing the pain. The madness of claws ripping flesh. Fanged teeth gnawing their way out. He fell to his knees. It had to be its death throes. It would be over soon. All he had to do was wait it out. Then the phone rang. His daughter calling again to check on him, he was sure of it. But he couldn’t answer. Not yet. There was no mouth that could utter the pain. He rose and staggered toward the dining room mirror, spinning at the last moment and slamming his back into it again and again. He stood before the fractured surface and waited to feel. Nothing. Maybe this was it, he thought. Maybe he’d killed the thing this time. The phone continued to ring. The ghost of a trickle along his spine, the moth-flutter touch of a child. It could be blood. He could have cut himself on one of the shards hanging from the wood frame. He reached behind his back, felt the football-size lump. It wasn’t moving. A good sign. He pulled his hand away. No blood. But then it was as if he could no longer see his hand, as if the contour of it had washed away, or as if a spot clouded his vision. He rubbed his hand against his cheek. Yes, it was still there, part of him.
Filthy knives tore at his flesh, the determined claws of his executioner. The pain dizzied. He torqued his right arm around in a desperate attempt to grab it and fling it from his body, but no matter how hard he tried, it always seemed out of reach. The rat was eating its way out of him, he was sure of it. He spun around, trying to grab it with both hands, and caught fragments of his reflection in the shards hanging from the mirror. A sliver of his receding hairline. A patch of ear, dark hair grazing the top. A slice of stubble along his neckline. The sketch of him no longer connecting.
He woke slumped against the wall beneath the broken mirror. Opposite him, in one of the dining room chairs, sat a black rat, much larger than he. His first reaction was to check his chest, his stomach, his back to see the hole where the rat must have eaten its way out. But he found nothing. The lump in his back was no longer there, either. He wondered if he were dead. He didn’t think so, but he couldn’t be sure. He listened for his breathing. Felt his pulse. If he were dead, his body was doing a pretty good job of keeping the news from him.
The black eyes of the rat stared back at him. Hard eyes. Terrible eyes. Eyes that fixed him in place. Pus dripped from one, as if it suffered from some sort of conjunctivitis. Chipped and yellowed fangs jutted from the corners of its mouth. Tangled and matted hair stuck out from the side of its back. Its breathing was erratic, and its right foot shook randomly.
“You don’t look too good,” he said.
The rat stared back with violent indifference. “Why don’t you tell me?” the rat whispered. “Tell me your goddamned secret.”
“You don’t fool me for a second,” he replied.
“There’s a certain pleasure in hearing it from your lips,” the rat said, its eyes like an unrelenting dimming, boring their way to the unnamed.
“No.” he said, quietly at first. Then again, “No!”
Its breath stuttered. Its right foot trembled.
“I’m tired of this,” he said.
The rat tapped its claw on the arm of the chair, as if to some unheard rhythm.
“Did you hear me?” he said. “I’m tired of living like this.” He crawled toward the rat. It sat there, watching, waiting, as if it knew before he knew what he was about to do. When he’d crossed to the rat, its tail wrapped around his ankle. An embrace? A warning? He was surprised at how scaly it seemed. Like a snake. He stood. Up close, its eyes seemed sad. Many of its whiskers bent and broken.
He’d expected some resistance when he pulled the rat’s jaws apart, and finding none, nearly ripped the corners of its mouth. Still it said nothing, not even when he reached into its throat, searching for leverage, for something to hold onto. He pulled himself inside, slithering through blood, sliding deep into the dark recesses of the rat’s belly where he immediately began rummaging around, tearing away bits of muscle, pieces of sinew, and flecks of bone to make a nest for himself, or perhaps a wall, anything that might provide shelter from the uneasy knowledge that lay in wait.
On Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway and Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of the Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
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