Thursday, April 28, 2011

Don't Tag Me Bro!

The other day I was trying to pay attention to an old episode of House but my enjoyment was impeded by a disturbance around my second vertebrae. It was like a scratchy, sweeping whispery fickle tickle that came and went with every breath. I thought, What the hell? How can one square inch of what? nylon satin, or cotton satin or maybe even hemp in some cases or stiff paper nylon or whatever devilish material they find for these tiny tortures cause so much annoyance?
I wrung off the sweater and tried to rip out the tag. It didn’t budge. The tag was constructed like the tape with threads running through it that delivery companies put on their packages to withstand the vicissitudes of travel.
Socks don’t have labels. They have stamped or embroidered logos to tell us who made them and then to use our ankles to advertise.
A couple of years ago Hanes stared advertising the fact that they were now stamping their logo on their underwear so we wouldn’t have to be irritated by the tag. Their commercial showed people jumping for joy because – hey! no annoying tags. For some reason the manufacturer was playful with the graphics and stamped their name at an angle in red. That lopsided presentation made the formerly reliable Hanes product look worrisome as if rebellious third world workers had decided to stick it to the man. I personally hate the Fruit of the Loom tags. They pucker in the wash and quadruple their edges and then proceed to torture you in a way that would appall the international human rights organization.
Banana Republic’s tags are made of heavy satin and stitched on both ends
Tags that are sewn at the top and them left to dangle will turn into soft erratic missiles at first washing. The ones that are sewn at each side are okay until one side unravels. Not only does the tag dangle lopsidedly but it MOLESTS an unreachable part of your back that you can’t quite reach.
I once had a sweater I loved but the tag was a rebel and always popped out of the neck. People, strangers, were constantly folding it in. I am short so everyone could see the tag and felt it was all right to reach into my warm lower neck and tuck back the errant tag that, of course, popped right out again with the first walk across the room.
I could have sewn the tag down if I had found that particular color thread that was the precise shade of Martha Stewart’s sage green paint but was never made as thread.
My favorite cardigan is made by American Knitwear and the tag is satin, sewn horizontally and potentially innocuous were it not that they added washing instructions on a nearby clumsily attached tag that says: machine wash, warm separately, gentle cycle, do not use bleach. If I’m wearing a crew neck tee (with it’s own tag) underneath the cardigan and I know I’m going to be dealing with three, possibly four tag problems all day, I just take a tranquilizer in the morning.
Some tags attach on the side seam at about the height of your hips. You don’t find these tags until you ruin the item in the washing machine and then discover the tag that says, hand wash in cool water.
I bought a pack of eighteen washcloths that they sell at Wal-Mart for 3.99. You wouldn’t think washcloths needed washing instructions. Their function is to be wet. My Wal Mart washcloths have a tag that reads like a small novel. It states the fabric in both English and Pakistani. AlGodon must mean “all cotton” in Pakistani. Then it says Ve el reverse para el cuidado. That sounds like Spanish. On the reverse side is War and Peace. It goes like this: Machine wash warm. Tumble dry medium. Do not bleach. Wash dark colors separately.
Lavar en col
Secar en secador
Col baio extendido
No usar Cloro
Lavar los colores oscurios por separados
It sounds like some lazy translator decided he would sound linguistic if he just left the last letter off everything.
That’s the kind of “cover all bases” instructions that I used to give to the babysitter when I was going out for ten minutes. . i.e. If by chance they swallow and entire bottle of vitamins, here’s the number for Poison Control and if they fall off the Jump-A-Leen or put the drapes on fire or climb into the dryer……..
I wish I could talk like that tag.
I wis I cou tal lik tha. Don tag me bro. Than yo.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

#SampleSunday: Excerpt from "One Hundred Open Houses"

Finding comfort in the familiar; George Soros’ Awesome Wednesday
This is the second snowfall in less than a week. I have to shovel the walk so the mailwoman doesn’t leave me a note that says. You have to shovel the walk or no mail. And then another note: Not shoveled enough. Make it wider. We used to consider the postman as a serious person who had some standing with the government. I’ve seen my mailwoman sitting on the curb eating a sandwich.
Sometimes, I don’t get mail for days and often, it’s for other people - same number, different street. The bookkeeper says they lost her mail for months and her truck was going to be repossessed because none of the payments got there. This morning, I’m making coffee and I hear a lot of noise at my door and I go out and it’s a kid in a ski parka stuffing mail into my box at 8 in the morning. I figure this kid has had my mis-delivered mail under his bed for a few days and his mother finally said, “Jason, you’d better deliver that mail.” There’s a sixty-five dollar rebate from my insurance company because they are experiencing larger than expected profits.
When I get to the office, Louise cannot stop talking but it’s comforting to hear a few pointless stories. Every time I walk away she says, “Wait’ll you hear this,” as if she’s going to tell me something fantastic. I have never heard anything fantastic in my life except when Mort Persky offered me a column in a women’s porn magazine because he had liked an article I had written for Ladies Home Journal. Go figure. I was the mother of three by that time and one on the way. “Mort,” I said, “I get undressed under my nightgown. I’m seven months pregnant. I spent fifteen years in Catholic school. Men to me are like bison, woolly, in a group, off in the distance.”
“That’s why I want you,” he answered.
Louise’s fantastic news is about people who are already dead and she hasn’t seen for ten years. It seems her friend Libby’s husband Frank (who had made millions) left Libby for a younger woman and when the kids refused to speak to him, changed his will and left everything to the new wife. Frank has a heart attack and the trophy wife of two years gets all the millions. The old wife dies soon after. The kids are orphans and poor and the new millionaire wife is loaded. Ok. That is fantastic!
Louise’s stories make me wonder how my life would sound in ten sentences or less. When you depersonalize, the facts smack you. I’m five foot three with short curly hair made a nice chestnut brown by L’Oreal’s Chestnut Brown. My face looks okay in the mirror but when I see it in photographs it looks like no one I know. And also someone who isn’t that smart. My eyes look big but in a startled way and my former lovely petite nose has broadened a little. There’s too much face (which could be taken care of by shedding some pounds). My lips are good, still smooth, My chest and neck don’t have any wrinkles and those lines that slant from the outer corners of your lips to your chin (plastic surgeons call them marionette lines just in case you didn’t feel like Howdy Doody.) can still be erased with concealer. I have two worry wrinkles between my brows. For unknown reasons, I don’t have any other wrinkles. I used to think it was my olive complexion that saved me, but my mother has very white opaque skin and she doesn’t have any wrinkles either. My looks are always changing. At times I think I look very pretty in a romantic way, like a heroine. It’s possible.
When I get to my desk I realize that I have to start cold calling every corporation in America and ask them if they want to shell out $100,000 to have their banner hung in a tent for several days. I start with the big communications conglomerates. After two hours of cold calls and many messages left on voicemails, I take a breather and peruse my stock portfolio and read the stock message boards.
On the WENG message board, a writer identified as StockBaby has posted these words: “I be buying this stock for 3.25 and now it.1.30. What to do?” “Kill yourself you idiot,” answers Two-bit-Proctology, “and I know you aren’t StockBaby but the same ass-licking liar who calls himself the Real-Bo-Diddly.” The profanity filter is off. Jugrnut, has taken a higher road. “I want justice served but first give me my faaking money back you corrupted swift operators! You are unethical in my book.“
I came upon WENG by chance on the KMGI message board and I have made a little money. I haven’t taken a profit because I don’t know how to take a profit. I only know how to watch things that were once up go down in a scary way.
All I know about WENG is that it offers storage. (not like a locker at the train station) the kind of storage that is needed now on the Internet. No, I don’t know what I’m talking about. My investment style is casual and has resulted in medium-size wins and some painful losses. One of the things I’ve learned through the years is that you’re either imitating your mother or your father. After he retired, my father used to sit in his broker’s office and watch the ticker tape. He had stocks and bonds and never sold any of them. He died a wealthy man. I’m definitely not imitating my father. I put in a buy order for 5,000 shares of WENG at $1.25 and log off.
I’m smart enough to know that I am playing against the “big boys” whoever they are.
I do know George Soros is a “big boy.” George Soros “broke the bank of England” in 1992 when he bet massively against the English pound and ended up making one billion, that’s b as in billion, on what is now known in England as “Black Wednesday” and what is known in George Soros’ house as Awesome Wednesday. Currency trading and fooling around with futures (except my own) is beyond my comfort level.
I pick up the phone again and call Nextel to ask someone in charge if they would like to sponsor the most respected film festival on the East Coast. An operator who probably just started and still has some enthusiasm for the job actually gives me the person I need. It’s a woman and she says, “Yes, we’re interested. I’m glad you called.” After I pick myself up off the floor, I begin my spiel. “Your brand at a respected cultural event in one of the world’s most desirable destinations. I don’t have to tell you that visibility in the Hamptons is over the top. 18,000 pairs of eyes with a Hamptons income fixated on your brand. We’ll give you saturation visibility. Saturation from Montauk to Quogue!
It’s ironic. I am the least likely person to talk about all this materialistic stuff. I cannot buy things comfortably. I can give money away and I can certainly lose money trading stocks, but I find it difficult to go into a store and look around and then buy something. I’m likely to return most things.
I promise the Nextel woman to send her a proposal immediately by e-mail. For the next two hours, I prepare a detailed and persuasive document to convince this phone giant that if they do exactly as I say, they will be astounded and amazed. I feel so elated that I’ve actually interested a possible sponsor; I decide to do something that God would like and call my mother who is in a nursing home in Manhattan.
“They sold my floor.” She says in greeting. “They’ll probably throw all of us out.”
“Are you sure? They can’t just sell your floor.”
“Rich people can do anything they want, my dear.”
I have heard this story before and decide to try another tactic. It’s her lunchtime. “How is the lunch?” I ask.
“I would like to see a piece of meat. And now my bed’s too low and I don’t know how to make it higher. None of the girls here know what I’m talking about.”
“You must feel very frustrated,” I offer.
“Yes. Frustrated.” She’s satisfied that I have found a word for her that expresses her feelings. Even though she still recognizes me and seems happy to see me, we rarely talk about our shared past. The visit is taken up by her latest campaign - they’ve sold her floor and they’re going to move her out. Or, they won’t put the lights on and everyone is up in arms. Suppose she’s right? Suppose they have sold her floor and the minute the visitors leave, the staff, for amusement, turns off all the lights and the old and infirm are left to fend for themselves in the dark?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

#SampleSunday: "Thinner Thighs In Thirty Years

(THITY is a monologue that was performed at the Seattle Film Festival and at the Periwinkle Playhouse in Sanibel,Florida. I submitted it to Amazon's "Kindle Singles" They accepted it and it has been on sale since Wednesday. It is selling about 30 copies a day, a heady experience for me.) Below is the opening page.

Constructive Abandonment
(music) If I had to choose just one day, to live my whole life through. It would be the day my darling – the day that I met you.....

In twenty years of marriage, I cooked seven thousand evening meals. It was probably more but I’m ashamed to say how many. Every evening he would look in the kitchen and ask: Do I have time to change before dinner?
You have time to build the freeking Panama Canal. We could skip dinner. You’re the only one who cares about three square meals a day.
What was that?
Nothing. I gave him one chance each night to experience irony. After that I shut up and cooked.

There’s this book, Love, Loss and What I Wore. I don’t remember what I wore for love but it stuns me to remember what I wore for loss. The day I read my father’s will, I burned everything I was wearing - jeans - one of the kid’s souvenir tee shirts. It’s hard to intentionally burn clothing. Matches won’t do it. I had to use lighter fluid. It took a lot of poking.
Mom, have you seen my Bon Jovi tee shirt?
The day I applied to be an airline stewardess, I wore a pink drop-waist dress. It had a huge bow right above my ass. I weighed about thirteen pounds then but how could a dress like that do anyone any good?
When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon I was wearing lilac baby doll pajamas. Whenever I wore those pajamas, I wanted Sister Francisca to see me.

Today I'm driving to Riverhead for my divorce. I bought this divorce dress. Divorce underwear. It's ecru. Something borrowed, something ecru. I'm on PROZAC!
I sound very lah di dah but I can tell you I'm in a cold sweat of remembrance: lost friends - lost love – not doing right and now coping with the consequences. The bottom line? I know without doubt I couldn't have done things any other way.
I'm shocked I can even drive on the Long Island Expressway. Driving and cooking didn't come easy. Cooking was something Sister Mary Joseph did at my old boarding school with a charred wooden spoon. As for driving! I needed a shrink just to enter an expressway. Even dumb people know how to drive, I said. I should, too.

Should? screamed the shrink. I should do this. I should do that. That's the land of shouldhood. And shouldhood leads to shithood – putting yourself down for not doing it. Just drive.
Now I drive with a tape blasting my favorite song: Take Stuff From Work. Take stuff from work. Take a case of White Out. They won't miss it and you might need it some day. Take stuff from work!
There's a hitchhiker on the road. A laid off postal worker going to murder his boss? If I picked him up and he killed me, my husband would get everything as the surviving spouse. At the eleventh hour! It wouldn't occur to him for three weeks that he got everything. It would occur to me in a second and a half. Oh, my God, I get it all!!! Oh, he died.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sample Sunday excerpt: Tough As Nails, P.I. novel in progress

(Set-up) Newly divorced Freddy Lang calls herself a re-claimed housewife. She has taken an internet course and is now a licensed private investigator. She has been hired by one of her neighbors to find out who killed her dog Tiffany but the dog's death is looking to be the least of what Freddy has to solve.)

On the way home, I had stopped at the Fineast supermarket to get a cooked chicken and seltzer. I dine on rotisserie chicken and seltzer strengthened by some Chilean Merlot many nights. Sometimes I eat standing at the counter, wash my hands and take the spritzer to the TV to watch the evening news. The whole thing takes fifteen minutes. It’s shocking to realize how much of my married life was spent in the supermarket and the kitchen. In twenty years I cooked seven thousand evening meals.
In the soft drink aisle of Fineast a short pretty woman in a maid’s uniform that was one size smaller than she needed, asked me to reach two bottles of Evian. On second look, I realized it was Rosalia, the Gibbons’ maid.
“I’m your neighbor,” I said. Before I reached for the Evian bottles,I wanted something in return. “Freddy Lang...across the street.....the little house.”
“Oh, casa the leetle house.”
“Is Charlene here?”
“No, she hab to go to the denteest. She drop me off and pick me up on the way home.”
“You’re Rosalia, right?”
I took a deep breath. “Rosalia, did you poison the dog?” There’s nothing that jump starts a conversation like a wild accusation.
“No way. Jew theenk I’m crazy? Madre de Dios.”
“Did you like the dog?”
“I can take it or leebe eet. In my country the dogs run in the street. My childrens can’t buy Nike Air but the dog hab everytheeng. Loco, no? Crazy. But I dun do nathing to the dog. The meester," she paused. “he hate Teefany.”
“Really? Mr. Gibbons didn’t like Tiffany?”
“Das right.” She clapped her hands in a gesture that said, ‘that’s eet for you sister. My mouth is cerrado.’
“That’s a switch. Usually it’s the men that are crazy for the dog.”
“Naw, she shook her head and looked longingly up at the bottles of Evian, “not heem. The dog, he sleep in the bed, he eat from the table, he do everything with Mrs. Mr. Geebons, he say, all the time, I’m going to keel this neur....newroteek...que es eso? What ees newroteek.?”
“It’s ....when you act a little know, you can’t sit still or you do things in a certain way all the time. Or you buy too many clothes because you don’t like yourself....”
“Uh, huh. She had lost interest in the conversation and was trying to be polite.”
“That’s hardly a reason to want to kill a dog. Didn’t he do something worse? Maybe he chewed up something valuable?”
“He do sometheen worse.” she said gravely.
“Last year, when the Mrs. she hab pregnant, the dog jump on her and she fall to the floor. The baby come too soon. He die.”
“Oh, no.” This was such shocking news, I was ashamed for cornering the woman and reached for her water. “Rosalia, that sounds terrible. I’m surprised Mrs. Gibbons doesn’t hate the dog, too.”
She shrugged. “I dun know. Mrs. Gibbons. She lobe de dog. She lobe the dog and her brother too much.”
Her brother and the dog? Charlene would walk in any minute and I could get more on this elsewhere. The women in the neighborhood would be only too eager to discuss the lopsided love rationing in the Gibbons household.
On the way home I sing-songed the phrase: 'she lobe the dog, she lobe her brother,' the way Faye Dunaway kept saying, ‘she’s my sister, she’s my daughter,' in Chinatown. That’s what it made me think of and I went with the feeling. I couldn’t wait to ask more people if they had poisoned the dog. It seemed to unlock a lot of information. I was on a roll.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Security questions, regrets and who the heck needs this?

Sometimes, I force myself to leave the house and visit one or the other of my children and use their computer to monitor a small investment account that I keep with a well-known brokerage house.  When I log in, the system always asks me to answer one of the peculiar questions they have devised to keep the wrong people’s hands off of my money.

One of the questions is:  In what city did you meet your husband?  I have been divorced for over a decade and now I have to dredge up the city where we met and that also dredges up the circumstances and I have to re-live that drama and the fact that I allowed that marriage to fail and now live alone like a loser.

Another question they ask is in what city did your paternal grandmother live?  Since I am of Palestinian descent, I have to go to Google so that I spell Ramallah correctly and then I have to dredge up how this city does not belong to the Palestinians any more and blah blah blah. (Ramallah, btw, was distinguished by the fact that it was settled in the early 1800’s by five brothers and everyone who lived there was related.)

Another question is: Who was your favorite childhood friend? I was raised in convent boarding schools where all the students, me included, were demented and came from dysfunctional homes.  The friendships were bizarre and often exclusionary (as in being excluded and bullied).  Then I have to remember that sometimes I took my turn at being the subject of bullying and then would stay in bed and pretend to be ill so I wouldn’t have to face the bullies. We slept in attic rooms in narrow cots that remind me of that wonderful movie with Michael Caine based on the novel, The Cider House Rules.  One year when I didn’t attend boarding school, my favorite friend (like Charlie Brown) was a red-headed girl named Thomasina Thrasher.  Hey, Thomasina, if you are out there and read this, please get in touch.

Another question the brokerage firm asks is in what city was your mother born?  My mother, although of French descent, was born in San Salvador.  Recently I’ve learned that it was not really San Salvador but a smaller village named Zacatecas. Then I have to remember that my mother and I were both born at home and it was up to our parents (I use the term loosely) to register our birth with the authorities and our parents were negligent and imprecise and in my mother’s case they got the name of the village wrong.  In my case they got the date wrong.  Then I remember how my mother and I traveled to the United States by bus through Texas and for the entire trip the only thing I ingested was Coca Cola, a drink that in those days was made with syrup and soda and still had cocaine in it.  I arrived in the U.S. a mild dope addict.

These are all things that happened a long time ago so please don’t leave sympathetic messages.  I am quite happy now except when I have to use a strange computer and TD Ameritrade asks me all those questions.

On the e-publishing front.  I did something different with my latest offering “Thinner Thighs In Twenty Years,” a monologue I wrote in the early 2000’s and was performed at the Seattle Film Festival and at the Periwinkle Playhouse in Sanibel, Florida.  I submitted TTITY to Kindle Singles.  Kindle Singles is different from plain Kindle publishing.  You have to submit and be accepted.  My publishing buddy Sandra who has published over twenty excellent books and has earned my total respect says she never again wants to submit anything that has the chance of being turned down.  I still enjoy being humiliated so I submitted Thinner Thighs.  And, guess what?  They took it and will launch it next week.  Because of my inability to accept acceptance, I surmised that perhaps no one was submitting Kindle Singles and they were accepting anything that came their way.  I’ll let you know what happens when you publish a Kindle Single.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"How bad is that?" The fragility of reputation.

This morning I was thinking about reputation. I had seen a negative article on my favorite goddess of all things tasteful and smelling of sea air and lilac, Ina Garten of the Food Network show Barefoot Contessa.  BTW the original Barefoot Contessa was a pretty good movie with Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart about the tawdriness of the movie business.
Because I live where she lives, I have seen Ina a few times around town.  My house is walking distance from her house. When I pass the food channel and she is on, I stop even if it’s the third time I’ve watched her make saffron risotto with butternut squash.

Ina is a devotee of the Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt who started the neutral linen movement.  She doesn’t like things that are purely decorative.  She does not apologize for her liberal use of heavy cream, butter or sugar.  She will make a plum tart for a casual lunch.  (If I ever made a tart, I wouldn’t choose something as chancy as plums.)  She doesn’t like cilantro (hooray).   Her recipes always say “good olive oil” as if she knows we probably just have so-so olive oil.  Outside of the plum tart, I could say, ditto, ditto, ditto all day long to the things Ina likes and her philosophies of decor and cooking.

You can imagine my surprise when I saw on several news sites that fresh-faced Ina who still likes to surprise her husband with nostalgic menus they shared on their honeymoon, had twice declined to meet with a terminally ill child who’s sole wish was to cook with her.  No. no. no.  Ina of the maddeningly elegant cookware and provisions who is addicted to rhetorical questions: “How good is that?”  “How easy is that?” did not do that!  The news story went on to say that only on the third request did the Food Network star agree to have the child cook with her.  The only thing left to do was to tell the boy on national television: “Okay, you little crybaby, let’s see how well you fold in those egg whites.”

Henceforth (or at least in the near future) no matter how perfect the pear clafouti or how enviable the 18 foot marble work space in the new “barn” the first thing we will think is that Ina refused a terminally ill child’s simple request.

Now here’s the odd part.  In tandem with my idolatry of all things Ina there has been a shadow impression that I couldn’t identify until now.  It is the idea that if we met, Ina would not be friendly.  There is a nuance that advertises a “no nonsense” coolness that would be hard to crack if you are not in her inner circle.

Will I still watch?  Of course.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sample Sunday excerpt from Daughters

(Set-up:  Miriam and her family have been dislocated by the war.  She is walking to Jerusalem to seek medical help for her daughter and is all too aware that she might meet up with the doctor she loved. Actual combat of World War One has not reached the city but the wounded men of Turkey's army are everywhere.)
They smelled Jericho long before they saw it.  It’s the pomegranates, she thought, and apricots and bananas ripening on the trees.  So many memories are entwined with that sweetly perfumed air.  There’s no harm in remembering how it was, is there?  I can summon up his face so quickly, the face whose presence blocks out all other life.  Oh, no . . . it just occurred to me, he could be dead like all the others.  Perhaps he contracted cholera.  He treated people every day and it would be difficult to escape the germs.  If I could see him one more time just to assure myself that he’s well.  She pulled Nadia into the first church they saw and prayed fervently that Max was alive.
It was a shock to see the effects of war in Jerusalem.  The streets were strewn with the wounded.  Men of every description – Turks and Arabs and Germans – lying in filth, begging for medical attention.   There was no one to give it to them.  Miriam wanted to put her sack down immediately and place at least a cloth under a wounded head.  It was impossible not to feel compassion.  Along with the men lying about, there were many more on foot – ragged, weary men with frightened eyes, wearing the tattered uniform of Turkey, mumbling advice, urging those that could hear them to flee for their lives. You could smell death and desperation.  There were long lines outside several large buildings and when Miriam inquired as to what they were for, she learned they were soup kitchens being run by the American Colony, the same charitable people who had housed Esa when she was running the shop.  She realized how hungry she was and decided to stand there, too, pulling Nadia to her when fights would break out, which they frequently did as the hunger-crazed populace waited for food.
After they had eaten, they started to walk to the office of the doctor that had been recommended by Spiridum such a long time ago.  The location was in the Old City, back in the Muslim quarter, near Herod’s Gate.  She decided to walk outside of the wall, where it was less congested.  Short of walking in the middle of the road, it was impossible to move more than a few feet without some poor soul tugging on her skirts.  A wounded man was begging for water and the pleading in his eyes stopped her.  She bent down to place her own waterskin to his lips, holding the back of his head.  Then something, a premonition, a flutter in her heart, made her look up and standing before her – as if it were inevitable – was Max.
She laid the man down gently and stood.  Her instinct was to reach for him . . . but no! . . . oh, Max . . . for a moment, in her dazed and weakened state, she wasn’t certain . . . her heart was beating unnaturally.  Max, Max!  She was trembling and nothing would stop it.  Trembling with joy but also . . . I must tell him everything.  I’ve been waiting to tell him.  The possibility of being consoled by this man who had known her every intimate need opened all the ghastly hurts of the past year; grief and pain washed over her anew and tears began to roll down her cheeks.
“Esa’s dead,” she whispered to break the awful silence.  She wanted so much to embrace him that she distracted herself with images of loss and pain.
“Oh, no . . .”
“And my father . . .”
“My poor, poor darling . . .”
“And so many others, Max, so many.”
“I know.  I know.” She saw that he was exhausted.  His eyes, once so confident, were bewildered.  The whites were streaked with tiny red lines and the circles around them a dusky purple color.  He must hardly eat or sleep.
“Where is the rest of the family?”
“They’re in Transjordan.”  She remembered that it was his note that had sent them away.  “We left as you told us to do.  I’m sure you saved our lives.”
“You’re here alone?”
“With my daughter.”  They both looked down to Nadia who had placed her face against her mother’s skirt and was holding it with one hand and sucking her thumb with the other.  For one thrilling moment Miriam considered telling him.  You’re looking at your daughter.  Our daughter.  See, she has your mouth, your brow, your coloring.  You should know her, Max.  Her temperament is so much like you.  She bit her lips and looked away.  Telling him would hurt so many people and it would only serve her own selfish purposes.  It would be a terrible mistake.
Right away, he couldn’t take his eyes off the little girl.  He bent down and took her sweaty palm in his.  She let go of her mother’s skirt and put her hands to her sides, not shrinking from his stare.  “So you’ve come to Jerusalem with your mother, is that it?”
“We’re here to visit the doctor,” piped up Nadia in her high but definite voice.  “Sometimes I make a lot of noise when I breathe and it scares my baba.  He says it’s because I don’t eat what I must.  But I do . . . I do,” she said.  “Sometimes I don’t cough for many days but baba doesn’t remember those times.  He remembers only when I cough a great deal.”
Max took a deep breath, straightened and turned away.  The sight of that pathetically thin child, her shoes so scuffed it was impossible to determine their original color, talking so rapidly touched him beyond words.  He had to blink to hold back the tears.
He picked Nadia up and, using her as a buffer between them, placed his free arm around Miriam and pressed himself toward both of them.  He was making small hurt sounds, weeping as if he didn’t know how.  Miriam’s tears were silent.
To her credit, Nadia did not move or cry out or ask any questions.
Max pulled apart and set Nadia on the ground.  “Do you have a place to stay?”
“I was going to ask Father Alphonse after we saw the doctor.”
“The doctor?  What doctor?”
She was embarrassed to admit she didn’t even remember his name, just the spot where his office was located.  “He’s a specialist in allergies.  I had received his name before the war but now I’ve forgotten it.  His office is on Ararat Road.”
“Allergies.”  He bent down again, took Nadia’s chin between his fingers to steady her and pulled down her eyelids.  “What is your name?” he asked her.
“My name is Nadia.”
“Tell me,” he said, putting his hands around her waist, “do you have a pet?  A dog?”
“Why do you want to know?”  Nadia was obviously delighted by the attention of the handsome stranger.  For the last year, no one had really been eager to have a conversation with her.
“Because that might be the cause of your coughing.  Perhaps the nights that he sleeps near you, his dander – the dust and hair that he shakes off – might make you cough.  Does he sleep near you?”
“Sometimes.”  She looked unconvinced.  “You think Jilly makes me cough?  That’s silly.”
“It’s all right.  Bring her to the hospital.  I’ll examine her.”  He looked meaningfully into Miriam’s eyes.  “She’s so poised and talkative for her age.  She couldn’t be more than four.”
“How did you know?  I am four.”
“Really?  Only four?”  He feigned surprise.  “But you speak so well.”
“We really must be going,” said Miriam avoiding his eyes.  “We’ll go to the clinic.”  She pulled Nadia’s hand forcefully.
“Please stay there.”  His eyes were saying that he wouldn’t do anything to cause her anguish.  “Don’t put her through any more stress.  I’ll find a place for both of you to sleep.”
“Max, I couldn’t.  You must be working day and night.  You look so fatigued.  I don’t want to add to your burdens.  I . . . I . . . oh, Max . . . I’ve longed . . .” There was so much she wanted to tell him but how?  And for what purpose?  She could not betray Nadeem all over again.  Her will was so fragile in his presence.  She began to wring her hands and bounce the knuckles against her chin in agitation.
“Shhh . . . I know.  You won’t be adding to my burdens.  You’ll be helping me.  Miriam I need nurses desperately.  Please stay and help.  For every man I treat there are five others who go unattended.  Please.  I need you.
“I can’t stay long.  My family is waiting . . .” She was like a captured bird, anxious and ready to take flight.  “They need me . . . we just came to see about Nadia because her father is worried that she might choke in her sleep . . . that we might not always hear her in the night.”
“Stay as long as you can.  Come.”  He picked up the dusty sack she had been carrying, flung it over his shoulder and then, noticing that Nadia was sagging with fatigue against her mother’s skirt, picked her up, too.  The little girl’s head fell immediately onto his shoulder.  Her forehead, still wrinkled with anxiety, nestled in the curve of his neck.  Within seconds, she was fast asleep against him.
Miriam felt a constricting fear all the way to the hospital.  What would happen when Nadia was left to sleep and they were free to touch?  The idea of being alone with him terrified her.  When they reached the hospital, however, it was so congested with people, all pleading for help that he only had time to show them to a small cubicle with a single cot before rushing off.  “Use my apartment to wash and then come to the wards.  There are uniforms in the supply closet.  I don’t know how clean they are.  Even the laundress can’t be spared from helping the wounded.”
After two days on the dusty road, she welcomed the soak in a tub of water.  How long had it been since she had such luxury?  She stayed submerged until the water cooled and she felt chilled and then dried herself slowly, looking at the body that she hadn’t been aware of for months.  How thin she was . . . bones . . . just bones.  Her eyes looked double their size in that emaciated face.  How could he possibly find her attractive?  Perhaps it was to the good.  In any case, there was no time for thinking now.  The cries of pain and human anguish coming from the vestibule were constant and threatening.  There was an air of desperation and the possibility of violence was palpable.  She dressed quickly in the familiar striped dress and bib apron, tiptoed to check on the sleeping Nadia and went to do what she could.
For the next five days, there was no thought of anything but saving lives and alleviating the suffering of the wounded.  Blood was everywhere.  It was surprising the way it fell – yes, fell – insidiously out of the body, soaking everything quickly in that heart sickening stain.  Every hour there were more men with ragged angry stumps where their legs and hands had been.  The filthy shreds of their clothing were plastered to gaping wounds. And the screams.  The screams!
She held an enamel bucket and heard the unearthly padded thud of dropping fingers and toes, a hand and, once, a sight that changed forever her memory of horror – a baby boy’s shelled leg, the knee still round and dimpled, sawn off.  Sawn off as vigorously as a piece of lifeless, stubborn meat.  There was no room for lust in this context.  And yet, it was always on her mind.  She yearned for him at every instant and the knowledge of it made her desolate and despairing.  Twice, at the edge of exhaustion, he wept tears of frustration in her arms.  More often, they did no more than hold each other briefly in silent sorrow.
As for Nadia, her life improved.  As Max had surmised, her difficulty had to do with the animal dander, which he quickly concluded after exposing her.  As long as she kept away from the dog, she had no further breathing problems and Max entrusted her with small errands, advising her with solemnity that she was to report directly to him.  She quickly established herself in the long corridors, thrilled with the activity and with the importance of being needed.  She lived for that moment in the day when Dr. Max would pick her up in his arms and say very seriously, “You are doing a wonderful job.  We couldn’t get along without you.”
On those infrequent days when the stream of wounded slowed, the hospital staff would canvas the overflowing halls for those who were ill but had not required surgery.  Miriam was given a corner of the largest ward and had been sponging an old Arab man who outwardly showed no signs of trouble but was running a persistent fever.
“Sister, sister,” he beckoned her near his face so he could whisper.  “Please . . . shhh, listen,” he was whispering unnecessarily because no one was eager to overhear.  “I need something.  Can you get it for me?”
“What is it?  Are you in pain?  What is it I can get for you?”
Zeit u zatar.  And hot bread.  I know where you can find it . . . shhh, listen carefully and I will tell you.”
He must be delirious, she thought.  He wanted bread with oil and spice.  “Are you in pain?” she asked again, not knowing what else to say.
“Sister, sister . . .” he continued in that same conspiratorial manner.  Zeit u zatar and bread.  I know where you can get it for me.  Please.  Make an old man happy.”
She saw that he was serious. “I can bring you food if you’re hungry.”
“No, no.  I don’t want food.  Please, just listen.  I know where you can get it.”
There was no sensible way to justify filling the old man’s whim when there was so much to do but his manner touched her.  He was old and frail and he wanted a favor.
“Tell me where to get it,” she said.
“It’s underground.”  He made her bring her face very close to his.  “In back of David Street near the old suq . . . the old suq,” he emphasized.  “You know it?  Where they used to sell the meat?”
“Yes, I know it.”
“The last building to the right.  There are steps down.  Knock three times and tell her to give you something for Nassam.  You do that for me?”
“Yes, I will.”
She hated going out into the streets.  She had to shake herself loose from begging hands knowing she was powerless to help.  She had tried on several occasions to walk to Tamleh to see her mother but the road was cordoned off and she was turned back.  Yet she slipped out and did as the old man had instructed and, sure enough, after hearing a guarded response from behind the closed door, a well padded arm with at least a dozen gold bracelets jangling delicately passed out a packet of warm food that Miriam delivered immediately to her patient.  She didn’t have time to watch him open the package but he smiled at her with such gratefulness – it was a deeply satisfying moment.
Within the next few days, she repeated this errand three times and the third time she delivered the warm, fragrant packet, the old man held up his hand, asking her to wait.  He reached under the bed and brought up a small cotton bag that had seen better days.  “I’m going to die soon,” he said simply, as if the event was inevitable and he had accepted it, “and you have been very kind to me.  Please, sister.  Take this bag.  It’s all I have . . . there’s a little money in it . . . Turkish money . .  perhaps the value is no good now but also there’s a deed, a lawful deed.  Shhh . . . it’s all right, don’t say anything.   Just listen.  I made a little paper and one of the doctors witnessed it and signed it.  The deed is for you.  It’s yours.  Thank you, sister.  You’re a good woman.  God bless you.”

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Coming out of nowhere to win it all

This morning I watched (video clip) Jacob Tucker an “obscure dunker” take the slam crown winning the NCAA dunk contest.  This is not territory I usually cover but I’m a sucker for people who come out of nowhere and win something.  Possibly it’s because I always thought I was going to come out of nowhere and win something and when someone else does it, it re-kindles the idea that it could happen to me. 

I don’t really know what it is I want to win.  Yes there is the obvious - lots of money, a house without dust, great sinuses, a private chef.  But there’s something else nagging at me:  I don't want to be ordinary.

At the very least, I want to get life right - stop doing things to look good to those who know me and cobble a stand alone balance of purposeful activity and compassion.  I like compassion more than love.  Compassion (if you strip the word of any nuance of sadness) implies that you have put yourself in someone else’s shoes and acknowledged his/her burden.  We all have a burden.  It is the sum and substance of our hidden idea of ourselves.  The shadow government that defines who we are.  

Jim Carey said something that stayed with me during his interview with James Lipton.  He said: "We start out with an erroneous idea of ourselves and build a life around it. 

We need to have at least one person acknowledge our burden.  It is at the root of what we talk about and whine about and dream about.  If just one person fills that need, we are satisfied and free of both the need and the burden.  It could be a miraculous release.

I don’t know if I’ve got this exactly right but it’s what was on my mind on this Saturday morning while I was watching the newly minted celeb, Jacob Tucker, slam dunk king.