The compensation of growing old…was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained-at last!-the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway


Claire sat alone at one of the small tables lining the glass half-wall, overlooking the museum lobby. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the giant yellow Chihuly sculpture hanging from the ceiling in its impossibly glassy, spiky way. She was tired of having to marvel at it, tired of having the same conversation over and over: How did they ever get it up there? And: How did they manage to ship it from his studio in—where was it again? Seattle? Portland? Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, anyway. She was tired of hearing about the documentary someone had seen a portion of while flipping through the channels—it must have been on PBS—showing Chihuly at work. That eye patch! That crazy hair! What a wildman, a genius. Isn’t he dead now? Or is he still alive? Google it on your phone. She was tired.

In the cafeteria line, she had chosen the Greek salad, the obligatory slab of French bread added to her plate by the server, a plastic-gloved hand holding the tongs. “Enjoy,” he or she had said, not looking at Claire. “Thank you,” she said back, not looking either. A cup of coffee, a glass of ice water. Debit card, tip added, receipt. “Have a nice day.” “You, too.” The condiment station with the insulated carafe of half-and-half, a saucer holding chilled pats of butter wrapped in gold foil. Returning to the table, Claire picked up her sweater from the floor, where it had fallen after slipping off the semicircular back of her chair. It was impossible to hang anything from those chairs: a jacket, a purse strap. The same chairs had been here since the early eighties, at least. Why hadn’t the museum replaced them with something more functional? She sat down with her tray. The Chihuly hovered, ablaze in her peripheral vision, a sun that never moved.

Claire had met with a group of students from ten to eleven-thirty and would meet with the next group at one. Last week, when reminding her class about the upcoming field trip, she mentioned that she would hold her office hour in the museum café today, that they were welcome to have lunch with her or stop by with questions about the assigned paper. “No, I’m not buying lunch for all forty of you,” she joked in response to the question she knew she’d be asked. “You have to buy your own.” She had repeated the line to her afternoon section.

Two students (one of whom was on the spectrum) had needed a ride to the museum that morning, so Claire had driven them over in her small car with the clock one hour and seventeen minutes slow. How could she drive anywhere with her clock so far off, Megan, the autistic student, had asked her; why didn’t she set it to the right time? Claire knew she should have reset the damn clock before Megan got into the car. But that would require fishing the manual out of the glove compartment, finding the page that told her to press Button Number Four till she heard a beep, then press Select Up, and so on and so forth. Instead of all that rigmarole, whenever Claire wanted to know the time she just added one hour and seventeen minutes to whatever the clock said. It was good for her brain, she told herself, kept her math skills sharp.

Was it even called the “glove compartment” anymore? Such a funny, old-fashioned term. If only her glove compartment were actually that, a compartment filled with nothing but gloves, of all colors and styles and materials. Claire wished that she could sit in the passenger seat and be driven somewhere by someone else, opening the glove compartment as they went along, and draw out one pair of gloves after another, trying them all on. Kid leather, marabou feather trim, long black ones for the opera, short white ones for beauty-queen-waving out the window, that slow back-and-forth gesture, like polishing a greasy smudge off a pane of glass. Back when she was in art school, she might have done a performance piece like that, but now, thirty years later, she kept such thoughts to herself.

The other student in her car, the one who kept changing her name—first it was Elisabeth with an S, then Elizabeth with a Z, and now it was Eliza—was not on the spectrum, and she probably hadn’t really needed a ride. She was one of those students who came to class early and stayed after to chat, who sat and stared at Claire during her lectures, laughing at her lame jokes about sculptures and paintings. What once had been witticisms were now just ironic asides that might cause the brighter ones to smile or raise an eyebrow in appreciation.

“You know what was so amazing about what you said last week, about coming to the museum?” Elizabeth said.

“What?” Claire said, thinking there was nothing in the least amazing about anything she had said last week in class.

“It’s amazing how you said you’d be eating lunch,” Elizabeth said. “Wow, I mean like, you eat lunch?”

“Yes,” she said. “I do eat lunch.”

It dawned on her that Elizabeth (Claire hadn’t accepted the usage of Eliza yet) had an eating disorder. She’d noticed an unpleasant smell in the mornings when Elizabeth came in and took her seat in the front row, a faintly familiar aroma covered over with something else, mouthwash or toothpaste, but unmistakably there: the odor of stomach acid, of vomit. Claire smelled it now, in her car. The girl must be bulimic. She realized she’d known it for a while but hadn’t consciously acknowledged it because, in the end, what did it matter? Her experience with students told her the girl was headed for trouble. Maybe in the next year or two Elizabeth would discover that she was bipolar, or bisexual, or bi-something. Claire hoped the girl would make it through her troubles—whatever they turned out to be—and come out on the other side alive and whole, but she, the adjunct professor, would not be around to witness the process or help her through it. She was only a temporary presence in Elizabeth’s life, three hours a week for one sixteen-week semester. She was not the girl’s mother.

Claire went back to the condiment station and refilled her coffee cup. At a quarter past noon, the café was crowded. A docent-training session must have just ended. A large group of women, mostly middle-aged, like Claire, waited in line to pick up plastic trays and utensils wrapped in white paper napkins. They stood in clumps of twos and threes, chatting and laughing, animatedly discussing the lecture they’d just left.

Claire sat back down at her table and watched them, feeling a deep sense of recognition for these members of her tribe. There was an Art History Type—she’d recognized this already in grad school—which could easily describe Claire, as well. Straight, dark hair, cut in some version of a bob. Overweight by some degree, from a little to a bit more, though not obese. Eyeglasses or contacts with reading glasses that were whimsical or artsy. Understated clothes in black, gray, or taupe, with interesting scarves and jewelry. Good leather bags, large enough for a notebook and whatever special pen they favored. (There was always a special pen.) This year—for the past few years, actually, she was surprised how long the trend was lasting this time around—there were a lot of animal prints involved in the clothes or scarves or accessories. Leopard prints, primarily, maybe a little zebra or giraffe here and there, but mostly leopard. No snake for the art history women, or pony or whatever else. Leopard. There were large leopard prints—life-sized, she guessed you could call them—and tiny leopard prints, as if there were actual miniature leopards living somewhere in the world that were hunted and skinned to provide their spotted pelts for middle-aged Midwestern women to wear for their docent-training class, to let all the other Cathryns and Carolyns and Caitlyns know that beneath their tame suburban and good-urban-neighborhood exteriors they were just the smallest bit wild, a tiny leopardess running in constant motion contained within her heart. Not that any of them would ever wear a real animal fur, leopard or otherwise. They were faux all the way, fake fur just for fun.

Claire considered her own costume as she sat over her coffee and water, one of the café workers having removed her tray with the half-eaten piece of bread and untouched butter pat, after a cursory, “You still working on that?” and her reply, “No. Not working.” From the bottom: short black boots with chunky two-and-a-half-inch heels, comfortable enough to spend several hours on her feet walking the museum’s terrazzo floors, high enough to give her a slight edge over the students, who didn’t realize how tall Claire was until they stood beside her, once they were out of the attached-to-the-desk plastic chairs they slouched through class in. Black pants, of course. Not tight, not loose. She looked down at her lap and saw the buff-colored cat hairs she’d missed with the lint roller that morning, and plucked off two of them before giving up. Who was she to deny her students the cliché of the cat-hair-covered art history professor? Moving up from her lap, there was a close-fitting black T-shirt from a discount store, with a sleeveless vest layered over it in, yes, a tiny leopard-skin print. For she, too, had a tiny leopardess inside, no different from the docents.

Claire could have been one—a docent—she was like them in so many ways. But they had more money than she, enough to allow them to be volunteers, unpaid for their enthusiasm, their training, their passion. Claire, on the other hand, needed to be paid for hers. She couldn’t afford to give it away for free. Every so often, a particularly bright student, an older one who was back in school to finish an interrupted degree or simply for enrichment, might inform Claire that she (it was invariably a she) was considering taking docent training at the museum. “It’s a two-year program,” they always told her. “It’s very rigorous. They say it’s like having your master’s.” Claire could mouth the words along with them, she had heard the exact same thing so many times before.

“But it’s not a master’s,” she would reply. “Why not go to grad school for two years and just get your M.A.? Then at least you’ll have a credential.”

“Well, it’s not like I need the money,” they’d say, looking down. Claire would look down then, too, and see their thousand dollar bag and six hundred dollar boots, and remember who she was. “I just really love art history,” they’d say. “You’ve inspired me.”

“Well, go for it then!” she’d say, recovering her sense of duty, her teacherly enthusiasm. “Best of luck! Maybe someday when I retire, I’ll become a docent, too.”

Four of the docent-trainees sat down at a larger table kitty-corner from hers. Claire took note of each of them, one at a time, their hair, clothes, bags, shoes. Leopard prints on two of them, zebra on one. There was a clear leader of the group—the alpha docent—with a loud voice that cut through the cafeteria noise. Nicely done foil highlights in her bob, good gold jewelry. There was one who was quiet, saying virtually nothing while she looked anxiously from one tablemate to another, waiting her turn to break into the conversation, but never finding an opening. There was one with longer, curly hair, ash blonde, who seemed a bit stupid; the loud, bossy one constantly corrected her little errors and slips of the tongue.

From their conversation, Claire could tell they’d been studying the museum’s classical holdings, a weak spot in its collection. Even with the glorious Doryphoros holding pride of place in his circular enclosure, with the marble stump growing out of his leg and that incredible, muscular, protruding ass, the one Claire longed to reach out and cup in her palm every time she walked by. Even with the recent donation of a collector’s cache of Roman portrait busts, some as ugly as sin, most of them marred by broken noses and other blemishes, having been purchased on the cheap in decades past, before any artifact from antiquity became dear. Even with the important Greek red-figure krater, which was lovely, but under dispute for having been acquired through a shady European dealer who had broken Italy’s antiquities laws; it would probably have to be repatriated someday soon. Even with those gems, the museum’s collection of ancient classical art was notably lacking.

Take the Etruscans, for instance, whose work Claire especially loved. The future docents at the table were talking about the few small Etruscan pieces the museum owned: a cinerary urn in the shape of a house, a partial figure of a youth, an engraved bronze hand mirror, its once-polished surface dulled over the millennia to a flat, greenish-brown patina. Displayed in its vitrine, the mirror held no trace of the woman who must have once used it to study her own features. Claire would like to have such a mirror, one that she could appreciate as an art object in itself, without having to see her reflection. She rarely looked at herself in the mirror these days, not fully. She only used it to check her teeth, or her eyebrows, or her hair from the back. Never the whole face at once.

The Etruscans were always a hard sell to her students. Even the studio art professors who shared Claire’s office hated them. “Etruscan art, ugh,” one had said to her recently. “Now there’s a chapter you can skip.” She had tried to argue for the good old Etruscans, get her colleague to see the beauty in their awkwardness, their fumbling attempts at realism. The life they put into everything they touched, the vigor and lust in their painted figures, with those huge black eyes, their big hands gesturing with widespread fingers, holding plates and wine cups, playing flutes and harps. The statues took giant steps before their creators even knew how to accurately set bodies into motion. Seeming not to understand the workings of muscles and tendons, the artists activated them anyway, the young men striding along as clumsily as Frankenstein’s monster, grimacing Archaic smiles on their faces.

But Claire’s favorite thing about the Etruscans was their underground tombs, because of their homeliness, their love of ordinary life. There could be no better paradise, the Etruscan tombs seemed to say, than one that held the same simple comforts of home. Inside the large burial chambers, carved from the soft tufa, would be a recreated hearth with some cooking pots, a knife, a big spoon, a pair of tongs. Modeled and painted to look as if hanging from a nail on the wall would be a coil of rope, a pickax, a hammer, and some handy-to-have-on-hand spikes. Your sleeping couch would be there, too, with a pair of your favorite pillows to rest your head in the eternal sleep of death. Your husband beside you, your dog at your feet.

The ceilings of some tombs were painted to look like party tents erected for a banquet—like the one they would throw for your funeral—in brilliant blues and reds, in geometric checkerboards and big round polka dots. And there in the gable end, over the entrance to your tomb-in-the-shape-of-a-house, was painted a pair of protective beasts, to guard you in the afterlife. Arranged in heraldic symmetry were painted lions, their long tongues curling out of roaring mouths, claws bared, tails a-swish. Panthers. Wolves. Leopards.

If she were an Etruscan, Claire thought, her tomb would already be built, a gaudily-painted facsimile of her house, waiting in an underground necropolis to someday receive her lifeless body. There would be an empty niche carved into a side wall, with two stone pillows awaiting her skull. Her husband David’s body would already be there, along with carved and painted housecats placed at his feet, replicas of the pets she and David had once loved and lost over time. Maybe there would be a painting of Claire and David as they’d been in life (if they were Etruscan, that is), lying side by side on a banqueting couch, smiling and toasting one another. There would be no likenesses of children in their tomb, for they hadn’t any, but then again, there were never any children represented in Etruscan tombs. Perhaps the loss of a child had been too sad to commemorate even then, two thousand years ago. If Claire could choose what to have in her tomb, she would include a bronze hand mirror, like the one in the museum’s collection. And for the protective guardian beasts above the doorway, she would choose a pair of leopardesses.

Back in her college days, the tomb Claire liked best had been labeled the “Tomb of the Leopardesses.” The title had been changed in more recent editions of the textbook, but she still referred to the creatures as leopardesses, as she’d been taught. “Female Leopards” is what they were called now, recognizably female because of their conspicuously full teats. Teats. Now there was a word Claire never thought she’d have to say aloud in her lectures, back when she was studying to become an art historian. She joked about that, too, to her students, trying to take the discomfort out of the word by repeating it: teats, teats, teats. After the laughter died down, she would continue on about how the Etruscans especially prized lactating wild animals because of the ferocity with which they protected their young. What could be more powerful, more fearful, more watchful in your tomb, than a lactating leopardess?

Claire liked to think that one or two of her students might someday choose to write their museum paper on an Etruscan piece, but no. They always picked the same old things: the Doryphoros, obviously, although there was nothing new whatsoever to say about him. Rembrandt’s Lucretia which, she had to agree, was a magnificent painting, but the student papers she read year after year tended to paraphrase the information from the museum plaque, while failing to describe the actual picture: how the tears filling Lucretia’s lower lids had not yet spilled over, or the way the corners of her mouth appeared to tremble, as if in actual motion. To think that those eyes had been welling, those lips trembling for almost four hundred years, and yet her students continually failed to remark on it. They preferred instead to snap a picture of the printed plaque with their phones before walking away, not even noticing the red slash of blood staining Lucretia’s white bodice where she had stabbed herself after her rape, the dagger still clutched in her fist.

More than once, while scrutinizing Lucretia’s face, Claire had set off the museum’s silent alarm, interrupting the invisible beam that passed in front of the canvas and signaling the gallery guards. She would be leaning in, too closely, she knew, but unable to help herself, trying to see how Rembrandt’s brushstrokes—the scumbled patches of vermilion, the seed pearls of lead white—had created such a devastating mixture of despair and resignation and defiance. As Claire gazed at the greenish shadows under Lucretia’s eyes, willing herself to truly understand what she was looking at, she heard the crepe-soled shoes of a guard approaching, the brush of his or her polyester pants, and anticipated the clearing of the throat, followed by the gentle exhortation: “Ma’am!” And she would pull back the requisite one foot away from the painting, murmuring, “Sorry, sorry,” still unable to tear her eyes from its surface.

When she had realized, all those years ago in art school, that she was more of an observer than a maker, Claire had changed her major from sculpture to art history. She wanted to look at art and ponder it, to analyze and interpret it, more than she wanted to make it herself. If Claire wanted to make anything these days, it was to make observers out of her students, to help them learn to see art for themselves, to love it in the same way she did. But there was only so much a person could do, she had eventually learned. Not everyone was willing, or able, to look so closely at the things around them.

Still, Claire was inordinately fond of teaching freshmen, at least in the abstract, when she considered her classes as a whole, rather than focusing on any one troublesome individual. First-year students had something about them that reminded her of those stumbling, striding Etruscan statues, so eager to begin walking before they even knew how. On a good day in class, Claire’s students might get so excited about an artwork on the screen that they began to talk over one another, caught up in expressing opinions and ideas they believed had never been thought of before. When she announced the end of the hour, some of them would glance quickly at the clock as if surprised, instead of being already braced to leap out of their chairs as they did on less-inspired days. Claire would watch them filter out of the lecture hall chattering to each other about art, just like these docents in the café, rather than staring down at their phones while they shuffled along to keep from tripping. Oh, the hope she had for them—they had no idea.

This semester she had declared certain artworks off-limits as paper topics. Not only the Doryphoros and Lucretia, but also the Egon Schiele portrait, which she adored, but in recent years had suffered its share of plagiarized analyses. And of course, the one van Gogh in the collection, from his series of olive trees. Claire, too, had once loved this painting, but she no longer knew if she could see it clearly, with the fresh-eyed ardor of youth, no matter how closely she leaned in. She’d been teaching too long in this town; she’d read dozens and dozens of van Gogh museum papers. If she had to read even one more of those, she thought, she’d puke.

Claire closed her eyes and allowed a wave of self-loathing to wash over her. Who did she think she was, anyway, to be so demanding? She was nothing. She never had been anything. There was something wrong with her, something lacking that could no longer be added or changed or fixed. She felt as if she were set in stone, like an ancient marble sculpture that had been finished long ago. From here on, pieces could only be broken off, parts removed and taken away. All this time, without her being aware that it was happening, Claire had been becoming herself, but now the becoming part was over. She was finished. She was what she was: a middle-aged adjunct professor of art history at a crappy community college, with a master’s degree and coffee breath. A lover of Etruscan art, wearing a tiny-leopard-print vest, eavesdropping on a table of docent trainees, and holding a solitary office hour in the museum, waiting for students who would never show up.

Oh, there were maybe two or three who might drop in on her yet, Claire told herself. Elizabeth might come looking for her, just to enjoy the novel sight of a woman eating lunch. Or Reynaldo, a graphic design student who loved Japanese animé, and whose bartending job caused him to be so tired in the morning that he often fell asleep in class. Or so he explained to Claire every time he did it, always coming up to her desk afterward to apologize while she gathered up her papers, unplugged her flash drive from the computer and logged off. As if she noticed the ones who fell asleep in class. In an early morning art history section, with the lights turned down, it was hard not to doze off. She’d done it herself all the time during her first year in college. Reynaldo was polite and his apologies seemed earnest, and Claire tried to accept them graciously. He was a bit older than the typical freshman, late twenties she guessed, Hispanic. My god, when had she started classifying all her students as something ending in –ic? Autistic, bulimic, Hispanic. Claire had a habit of putting everything into a category, the way she’d once filed glass-mounted slides into carousels labeled by various “isms.” Impressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism. If all her students were some kind of an –ic, what did that make her? Maybe a stoic, Claire thought. Or more like a cynic. Pathetic, that’s what she was. Definitely pathetic.

The docents she’d been eavesdropping on were getting up from their chairs, slinging leather bags over their shoulders, rearranging the ends of silk scarves. They smoothed the wrinkles from their unconstructed Eileen Fisher jackets as they chatted on, probably about to return to a windowless, all-white room somewhere on the museum’s lower level for their next class. They had switched to a new topic, moving away from the Etruscans’ home life and onto their own. “Lindsay’s taking a gap term,” the ash-blonde announced. “Northwestern just wasn’t a good fit. She’s going to Europe for a couple of months and then she’ll transfer to Mankato next fall.” The alpha docent shot a knowing glance at her companions, one perfectly-shaped eyebrow raised in skepticism. “Well, Josiah just loves it at Carleton,” she said. “It’s so international.” And then they were gone, around the corner and through the glass doors, fierce leopardesses protecting their offspring in the manner of upper-middle-class American mothers in the 21st century.

At least they had something to protect, Claire thought. Maybe that was what separated the docents from her—the essential difference between them. It wasn’t how much money they had, or the number of degrees. It was motherhood. All the while she’d been teaching her students—nearly three thousand of them over the years, by Claire’s estimate—these women had been rearing their children. They knew something Claire didn’t, something she would never know. They had earned their credentials.

“Professor?” A quiet voice came from behind her left shoulder. Claire turned to see Reynaldo, the perpetually sleepy bartender, looking down at her. An older woman—Claire’s own age —stood beside him, and a young girl a step behind.

Claire smiled her teacher smile, striving to look friendly, approachable. “Hi, Reynaldo,” she said. She had called him Reynaldo since the first day of class because that was the name printed on the roster. She’d heard other students call him “Ray,” but since he’d never corrected her, she continued to use his full given name. Some students liked that, she didn’t know why. Her students had once called her by her first name, as well, when she’d only begun teaching and wasn’t much older than they were. These days they called her Professor or Mrs. Archer, although she didn’t go by Mrs. anymore.

“Are you going to have lunch?” she said to Reynaldo.

“Nah, I came a couple hours ago, we’ve just been walking around looking at everything. It’s awesome. All this stuff is here I never knew about.” He sat down in the chair across from her, the woman and girl standing silent and erect in the aisle next to the table.

“Oh, yeah,” Reynaldo said. “This is my mom and my little sister. Is that okay that they came along? I wanted them to meet you—I mean, they wanted to meet you. And see the museum.”

“Of course, that’s fine. It’s very nice to meet you,” Claire said, making eye contact with the mother and then the sister. She looked back at the older woman and said, “Reynaldo is such a good student. It’s a pleasure having him in my classroom.” That’s what Claire always said to parents, and most of the time she meant it. This time she did.

The mother and the little girl smiled, both mute. Claire wondered if Reynaldo’s mother spoke English; his sister surely must since she appeared to be grade-school age. The two of them sat down at an empty table a few feet away, the one the docents had just left.

“So I have a question, Professor,” Reynaldo said. “I know you said we can’t do our papers on the van Gogh painting, but do you think I could anyway? I just really love van Gogh and it’s the one piece in the museum that I really, really want to write about.”

Claire drew her lips in around her teeth, then released them and sighed. “Well,” she said. “I guess so. Since you really love him. But remember, it’s not a report on the artist’s life. I don’t want to read a first sentence like ‘Vincent van Gogh was born in blah-blah year in blah-blah Holland.’ And you can skip the whole cutting-off-his-ear thing, too.”

“Yeah, great, no, I won’t write about that, don’t worry. Thanks, Professor.” He stood up from the table.

“And Reynaldo, I want you to look very closely at that sky and those trees and describe every color you see in them, okay? I mean every color.”

“I just think it’s such a happy painting, you know?” Reynaldo said. “With his bright colors and all. It’s hard to believe he committed suicide.”

“Yes, well . . .” She looked down at the table and spun her butter knife on the wooden surface, allowing it to make just one rotation before arresting its motion. “Again, this isn’t meant to be a biography. Just focus on the painting itself.”

“Okay. I’ll go back and take another look.” He turned to leave. His mother and sister rose from their chairs.

“Wait—one more thing,” Claire said. “Don’t tell anyone else in class that I’m letting you do the van Gogh, all right? I don’t want to have to read twenty more papers on The Olive Trees. This is just between us.”

“Gotcha, Professor.” He winked. She could picture him tending bar, how he must act with his customers. “Thanks a lot. See you in class. Come on,” he said to his mother and sister, jerking his head in the direction of the 19th-century galleries.

“Yes, see you in class,” she said to their departing backs. “Nice to meet you,” she added in a higher, louder voice, but they didn’t turn around.

Claire was such a pushover, but how could she deny him when he asked so politely? Especially when he’d brought his mother and sister along. She could hardly say no in front of those witnesses, with their depthless dark eyes staring holes through her. It wouldn’t kill her to read just one more van Gogh paper. There would always be a van Gogh paper in her future to read, Claire realized. Nothing ever changed. The olive trees would continue to twist in their grove, their shadows writhing on the ground under the relentless sun. The marble body of the Doryphoros would continue to stand, slumped and broken, with his bland, lost face, and his muscles gone to fat. Lucretia would remain forever on the verge of tears, while the blood seeping from her wound went unrecognized, unremarked. They were dead things after all, here in the museum—dead things that she loved.

Claire spun her knife on the table again, and let it go this time, turning and turning, the yellow Chihuly sun reflected in its broad blade. The glass orb floated beside her, on the edge of her vision, but she had no need to turn and look. It would always be there. She reached down without thinking and picked up her sweater, which had once again slipped off her chair and fallen to the floor.

Eliza Amon
Photo Credit: Leopard Mosaic by Greg Bailey is licensed under CC BY_NC-ND 2.0

Almost Ridiculous

It was Sallie’s first time. She smoothed the crumpled notebook page on the bar and squinted at her poem. She’d bought reading glasses over a month ago. She wasn’t yet in the habit of carrying them with her, but at the moment it didn’t matter that she couldn’t see. The paper was for security purposes only, as she’d practiced for days.

Alonzo Matsusaka took the stage, an open mike regular, a boy–– a man, she corrected herself, mid-twenties, a bit older than her son––dark and slight, in a black t-shirt, jeans, and sensible shoes. None of the flashy sneaker stuff and dragging pants she saw in her classroom every day.

She’d complimented Alonzo a couple of weeks before on his poem about drinking a hallucinogenic tea he’d brewed from jimson weed that grew in his childhood backyard. He’d built castles with invisible blocks for three days until the effects wore off. He wasn’t her student or her son, so she was free to appreciate the poem without worrying over the content. She enjoyed his work full of the California desert where she’d never been, board games, and boyish antics, juxtaposed with current events. So many of the poets used their time in the spotlight as a public therapy session––a phenomenon Sallie found slightly admirable and very disgusting. Though direct and open with friends and colleagues, she would never be so blatantly self–revealing on stage. She would never share the words she’d written about Olivia’s accident, Lou’s silent retreat into his consulting work, Bryce’s return from college fresh with silent blame directed at her for his addictions to weed and video games,

Next on the list, Sallie twitched with nervous energy. She thought she must be imagining things when audience members, mostly all poets themselves, turned to stare in her direction. She’d missed Alonzo’s poem except for the last line: Red-haired lady. Checkmate me.

She had red hair. Big deal. So did two percent of the population of the U.S., thirteen percent in Scotland. Even in the Black Cat Lounge, Van Dall, the host, had reddish hair, and that wispy girl who breathed poems about her dogs––Camille something. Yet there was no denying that during the applause Alonzo Matsusaka stared in her direction. She shook off the odd possibility that he’d written the lines with her in mind and prepared to slip off her stool.

“Please join me in welcoming a newcomer to our stage––Sallie!” hollered Van Dall.

She squeezed between people, sucked in her stomach, weaving her fleshy hips between chairs. She stepped onto the little stage without tripping and stood before the mike, her mouth suddenly dry. She took a breath, reminded herself to make eye contact with the audience––she always liked it when poets made eye contact with her––began to speak, words poured forth, and then it was over in a roar of applause. Van Dall approached, clapping wildly, “Let’s hear it, ladies and gents and anyone defying categorization. Sallie! Isn’t she fantastic?”

She slipped through the exit door, conveniently located to the left of the stage. She didn’t realize until the cold air hit her that she’d forgotten her jacket. It didn’t matter. Her wallet and keys were in her pants pocket. She knew she was about to break down and embarrass herself in the only place she’d felt relief since Olivia’s death.

On the twenty-minute drive home, she gave herself a good scolding. Her support group, her therapist, all the books said not to be hard on yourself. What if you just couldn’t help it?

The night Olivia slammed out of the house played in her head. She knew exactly which track corresponded with which image or snippet of dialogue. Click on “watch movie”: close up of Olivia’s mouth, tongue stud glinting. “None of your business. It’s my life. Lamont loves me. I’m not stupid! I hate you!” Then we see Sallie, expression livid, then imploring, so vulnerable we can’t bear to watch, then furious again. “You’re sixteen! I’m your mother. Your life is my business.”

The dialogue is so clichéd you can’t believe this drama was released. You can’t believe you keep watching it. The police at the door. A fatal accident on a city street, a telephone pole, neighbors say it sounded like an explosion, do you know how fast they must have been going? That idiot Lamont died too, or Sallie would have killed him. More than a year later, Sallie still cried while driving, the world gentler seen through a blur of tears.

In the garage, she reached into the glove compartment for the baby wipes she used to wash her face and composed herself. The smell reminded her of the time when she considered herself a good mother, when she foresaw the lives of her children gleaming happily ever after, before she learned about worry as a precaution, worry, thick and wet, that could surround an adolescent like amniotic fluid. Worry enough and your child will be safe. Let that guard down so you can sleep, and you will wake up with the police at your door. It’s all your fault––your attention wandered.

When she wiped Olivia’s perfect bottom, she could never have anticipated that confusing time when her daughter claimed her body through piercings, tattoos, and lovely hair dyed an artificial black and chopped ragged.

Ragged. Unbidden, lines from T.S Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” slipped from her lips and sounded over the tick of the cooling engine. I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. She’d memorized the whole poem back in the days when she was working on her college honors thesis. She wrote about “The Wasteland” keeping Prufrock for her own pleasure.

Lights shone in her husband’s study. Lou would be working or reading the paper.

Bryce would be playing video games, but she knocked on his door anyway. No answer. She could hear the mechanical, repetitive voices, the gunshots.


The grunt was either her son’s reply or an animated victim downed by a club. She decided to take it as an invitation and pushed on the door. The first thing that hit her was the smell: the weed, sometimes stale, sometimes fresh, and not sweat exactly, something else, whatever it was that virtual killers exude—a metallic smell of wasted adrenaline. A pile of clothes kept the door from opening all the way.

Bryce sat hunched in a hooded sweatshirt at the end of his bed clutching the handset, completely still except for his thumbs moving so fast they blurred. He was not going to pause for her.

“Good night,” she managed evenly.

No response.

“He’s not you,” Lou would say. Sallie closed the door just as an animated prostitute left her son’s virtual car, his health points went up and money went down. She knew enough about the game to know that next, he would beat the prostitute to death to get his money back.

Lou, a bowl of dry granola beside him, sat at his desk reading the New York Times magazine. He absently lifted the bowl to his mouth and lowered his face into it. Olivia always teased him for eating like a goat. Cereal clung to his graying beard.

“How’d it go?” he asked, mouth full.


His glance flicked to the paper then back to her. She could see the effort it took to make her feel he was listening. As much effort as it would take for her to tell him anything that mattered about her evening.

A twenty–year–old photo of her in Bryce Canyon stood at the edge of his desk. She’d stopped noticing it and wondered if Lou had too. She lifted it into the light and peered at her young face. Even then, she was older than Alonzo, Camille and so many of the other poets. In the picture, her hair blew across her face without hiding her huge smile. She pointed to the sky. Lou was the only other person in the world who knew that she was pointing at a golden eagle. Anyone who had been to Bryce Canyon knew the red-pink-orange color of the hoodoos in the changing light, the sharp blue of the sky, the imposing stillness of that expansive landscape, but Lou knew the color of their tent fabric with the moon shining through it. He knew the feel of her cold feet on his calves as they squeezed into the same sleeping bag. Bryce was conceived on that trip.

“Maybe we should take another trip to the southwest,” Lou said. “We haven’t been there in years. We loved hiking.”

Before Olivia’s accident and Bryce’s self–imposed solitary confinement, she’d regularly traveled to beautiful places in her head and, every day, while pushing a stroller or swing, waiting in traffic or a grocery store line, would imagine herself in canyons or on mountains or at the beach, mermaids singing, each to each.

“When would we go?” she asked. “Would we take Bryce?”

“Sallie.” Lou sounded frustrated with her. Again. “It’s just a thought. We don’t have to decide all that now.” He turned a page. “You should read this article about the ozone layer when you have a chance. It’s depressing but well-written.”

Sallie suspected she wasn’t the only one of the regulars who came alive, breathed easily, in that low-ceilinged, poorly ventilated room full of people scribbling madly, who then got up and said, “I just wrote this.” She loved the smell of cigarette smoke emanating from coats and sweaters. It reminded her of her grandmother and her first boyfriend’s car. She admired the intensity and manic vigor of even the most depressed poets. In her classroom, she wondered what her students were thinking. At home, she ached to know what Bryce had on his mind. At the Black Cat, she could look around and know things, important things, about each person from the snippets they’d shared from the stage, even though she wanted to pull people aside and extol the virtues of editing.

Alonzo had saved her a seat against the wall where the chairs were squeezed in so close together that no matter how she tried to arrange her legs, their thighs kept bumping. His thrilled–to–see–you smile made her unreasonably happy and brought her back to the days when Bryce would greet her like that. She’d come home to find her kids playing cards or cooking together. Olivia, arranging her cards or intent on chopping onions, barely acknowledged her presence, but Bryce always stopped what he was doing to give her that easy grin. Olivia’s glance would have passed right over Alonzo, too, with his long shaggy hair and plain clothes. She wondered what Bryce would think of him.

Alonzo’s earring, a small, red stone, caught the light as he turned to her.

“You’re here,” he whispered. “I’m up next. Really listen, okay? I want your feedback. If you have to leave, tell me. I’ll walk you wherever you’re going.” She could feel the insistent edges and soft curves of his words against her ear. She forced her thigh away from his––disliking the way they looked side by side––her fat spreading, filling the fabric of her stretchy black leggings, and his bony thigh, half the size of hers in crisp, dark green work pants. Had styles changed in the year since Olivia died? Maybe Olivia would have changed. Would Alonzo have found Olivia attractive? Would he have imagined her pierced tongue giving him pleasure and written poems about it?

On stage, Camille ended a poem about vengeful angels. Sallie tried to make her body small on the uncomfortable chair. Van Dall yelled at everyone to make noise. He tossed his hair. He talked about upcoming events that shouldn’t be missed. Then he called Alonzo up.

Desire, that’s what she felt as Alonzo stepped lightly to the stage. She barely recognized it. Alonzo, with his light brown skin, eyes black and wet as watermelon seeds, and long black hair, was beautiful, but it was the way he moved, sure the world would be generous to him, that stirred her. Her teeth cut into her lower lip in an effort to thwart the look of longing and anticipation she guessed shaped her face. She could never come back if she thought that anyone knew how much she, an old lady heavy with regret and losses, had begun to yearn for this boy who had his whole life ahead.

He took his place at the mike, inhaled audibly, and let loose a rush of words. Sallie hunched forward. She tried not to worry about the trickles of sweat under her arms and breasts and, instead, think of something worthy to say. The poem was about his great-grandfather being sent to the internment camps, losing his orchards and his life savings. She loved one line in particular, about dignity and fallen apricots and a crack in a lens of the old man’s glasses. She could mention that.

He sat down panting and raised a questioning eyebrow at her. She nodded, looked straight into his eyes, and what had initially felt silly and sweet now had a threatening urgency. She thought she might blush. She studied her chewed nails.

“Well?” The space between his lips and her ear was filled with his breath and possibility.

“I…I need to see it written out, I think.”

He ripped the page off his pad and thrust it at her, the ragged paper fringe trembling. Their hands touched. She felt a quick tightening between her legs and a shiver in her throat.

“I’m sorry. I need better light.” With careful intention she laid a hand on his arm in a deliberately maternal gesture, pulling back quickly before he noticed that her fingers, of their own accord, began to explore his skin.

Driving home she went over and over the conversation. They’d slipped out early to the McDonald’s across the street where she could see and they could talk without disturbing anyone. They sat beside each other in a booth. His arm bumped hers. She held the paper so she could read it and tried to focus on the words. He wanted her feedback; that was all. She thought of bald men with hair transplants lusting after young girls with bare midriffs. Olivia. The exhausting arguments every time Olivia left the house with shirts so small and tight they’d fit a newborn baby, her nipples, cleavage and belly ring screaming “You want me, don’t you?”

What was it Alonzo had said? She’d been so affected by the uninhibited smile he’d given her in response to a suggestion she’d made about line breaks that she almost missed his compliment. Something about her being a real poet, the one he looked forward to hearing from the most, that he’d watched people’s faces as she read and they were transfixed. Yes, that was his exact word, transfixed. She parked the car in the garage and realized her eyes were dry and she was smiling.

Driving to work the next morning her newest poem spun in her head. Waiting for winter… In December of my fiftieth year… Here it was January in New England and the confused trees near the high school parking lot were budding. She had her students spend more than the usual time on their “Daily Do Writes” so she could let her own mind wander. She wanted a draft of this poem done and memorized by next Tuesday. The night before she’d dreamed about polar bears plunging through ice and sinking. She couldn’t get the image out of her head.

Sallie stopped on the way home to buy groceries, using the time in the long checkout line to mull over images and cadences. The poem hovered while she made spaghetti and meatballs for supper, hoping to tempt Bryce out of his room.

We wait for the spectacular catastrophe

and are not disappointed. The bears

search for a solid place to set their paws––

Not bad. She liked the sound of spectacular catastrophe. She would ask Alonzo what he thought.

They hadn’t attempted a family meal since Olivia died. Back when Bryce came home weekends from college, Sallie would try to plan at least one meal together, but it usually ended up with Olivia leaving before the food was even on the table.

It must be my fault. I’m sorry/too late.

I try to love even what I don’t understand.

No, too vague.

She tasted the sauce. Lou startled her when he came in. He wrapped his arms around her from behind and pressed his face against her neck.

“Smells good,” he said. “I’ll just save this take out then––bring it for lunch tomorrow. Think Bryce will eat with us?”

“That’s the hope,” she said. The Styrofoam box of pad thai on the counter reproached her. She slid it into the almost empty refrigerator.

Lou whistled as he gathered plates and silverware. “You know, I think I’ll open a bottle of wine. Want some?”

Sallie blamed alcohol for her daughter’s death––a perfect example of how when it came to drinking, all the pleasure it provided couldn’t balance the pain. And Bryce––wasn’t it hypocritical to want him to stop smoking weed if she was using substances?

Lou waited, eyebrows raised. Sallie remembered Bryce Canyon again, drinking champagne they’d bought in Las Vegas, then lying on a picnic table side by side, opening her eyes wide to take in the skyful of stars, feeling happiness so perfect she was afraid to move.

“Okay,” she said.

Lou came back with a dusty bottle of red. “Do you even know where the corkscrew is?” he asked.

“I’ll look for it if you get Bryce,” she said.

“How about I look for it while you get Bryce?”

They stood in their kitchen staring at each other, arguing without words in the familiar way of all couples together so long. You talk to her. No, you. She’ll listen to you. But you’re better at talking to the kids. Yes, but the therapist said…

They knew the fight by heart though they hadn’t had it in more than a year: I, at least, told her that boy was no good––Whoever listens to their parents when it comes to their choice of friends––You could have at least said something, she might have paid attention if it came from you––

Lou handed her the wine and headed for the stairs. Sallie stood stunned. She’d expected to be the one to concede. She gripped the neck of the bottle. Two sets of feet approached, and she realized she hadn’t even begun to look for the corkscrew. She opened and closed drawers, relieved to find it and hold up her end of the bargain.

Lou pulled out Bryce’s chair for him. Sallie almost told him to take his hood off. “How many meatballs?” she asked instead.

Bryce shrugged. Sallie ladled five onto his spaghetti. They tried to ignore the empty chair. The kitchen table had four sides. Four chairs didn’t have to mean anything. Sallie wished it wasn’t right across from Bryce.

“So how’s the poetry going?” Lou asked heartily. He poured himself a glass of wine and gulped it. “Wine, Sallie? Bryce?”

Bryce nodded. Sallie pressed her lips together to keep from saying anything about underage drinking.

“I’m working on a new one,” she said. Why was he asking now? Her cheeks flushed, thinking of Alonzo.

Bryce bent forward, his face inches from his plate and shoveled in forkfuls of spaghetti. Strands hung from his lips. Be glad he’s at the table, she told herself. She cut into a meatball with the side of her fork and poked at it. Transfixed, Alonzo had said. The audience was transfixed, she wanted to shout. Or she could tell them that a boy with a red earring, barely older than Bryce, cared about her opinion, maybe even desired her, old and worn and sad as she was.

“What’s it about?” Lou asked, looking at her with interest she suspected was feigned.

Bryce stopped eating and, face still lowered, raised his eyes in her direction.

“It’s about…”

They waited. Could they really be interested?

“Global warming.”

“Why aren’t you writing about Olivia?” Bryce asked, looking back at his plate.

Sallie almost spit out the wine she’d just sipped.

Across the table, Lou’s eyes filled.

“In a way, I guess it’s all about Olivia,” Sallie said. She knew the truth when she heard herself say it.

They finished eating in silence, without looking at each other. Bryce pushed back his chair and stood up.

“Can you at least clear your plate?” Sallie said.

She narrowed her eyes in response to Lou’s admonishing glare. Don’t look at me like that, she almost screamed. We agreed years ago that the kids would be responsible for cleaning their dishes. Give him that look, not me.

Bryce clenched his jaw and grabbed the dish. Sallie tensed her shoulders waiting for the clatter and smash when it hit the counter, but he gently placed it near the sink, his glass and silverware too.

Lou slumped forward, elbows on the table and rubbed his forehead. She wanted to want to kiss him. After cleaning up the kitchen without a word or a touch, they retreated to their respective rooms and consolations.

The next Tuesday, in the more elegant, quiet, upstairs bar of the Black Cat Lounge, her second martini on the table in front of her, Alonzo with his fourth beer, she marveled at how easy it all had been––one long perfect flow––his performance, her performance, the tumult of applause, the charged air between their bodies as they sat and listened to the rest of the open mike and the slam, and the natural migration upstairs. She didn’t even have to ask––it just happened. Now, sitting side by side again, listening to him talk about writing a villanelle for his mother and a pantoum for his best friend and an epic poem in ottava rima for his Japanese grandparents, she felt her edges melting and ached to be twenty–five and going home to this boy’s bed.

“Alonzo,” she interrupted him. She was drunk and it felt great. “One time, at the grocery store, the woman in front of me––she was really old––said, like a pronouncement, ‘You have a listening face.’ She asked the cashier, ‘Doesn’t she have a listening face?’ What could the cashier say? She nodded. Then the old lady asked me what I did for work. I told her I taught high school. She told me I was lucky, bought me a lottery ticket and waited while I scratched it. I won five dollars! I tried to give it to her, but she wouldn’t take it. She said it was my reward. Do you think I have a listening face? Is that why you hang out with me?”

“That’s one reason.” Alonzo smiled and played with his empty glass. “I hang out with you because I like you. You’re fun.”

“Really?” Like could mean so many things. And fun? Not a word anyone in her family would use to describe her. She gulped the rest of her martini and chewed the olive. She hoped she could drive home.

“You know my daughter died a year ago in a car accident?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. He lifted his glass a precise and tiny bit and set it back down several times, printing wet rings on the shiny tabletop. They both watched the design take shape.

“She was beautiful. Olivia.”

He braceleted her wrist with his thin fingers. He looked at her oddly. For an unsettling moment, she thought he might kiss her.

“Do I dare/Disturb the universe?/In a minute there is time/” Eliot again––possessing her, spilling from her drunken lips. She used to be fun. Back when she’d had time to memorize long poems she loved.

Alonzo joined in, “For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

He tilted his head and, with a lopsided grin, released her arm. “The man could write.” He beckoned the waitress and ordered another round.

The next morning, head pounding, Sallie lurched toward the bathroom, late for work. She tried to reconstruct the rest of the previous evening. She prayed she hadn’t done anything embarrassing. She remembered one point when her good judgment had prevailed. She’d almost asked him if he shaved his pubic hair––she’d heard that young people did that these days––but instead had asked him if he liked video games. He thought they were okay, but a waste of time. They talked about knowing each other in past lives; they’d recited “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in its entirety, more than once.

Alonzo had paid for all the drinks. He tried shoving her money, all crumpled, into her hand and when she wouldn’t take it, into a pocket of her jeans. The moment came back to her, one of his hands on her waist, the other pushing the bills down into her pants pocket, fingers tantalizingly close to her crotch. Why would he have done that, if he weren’t at least a little bit attracted to her? She knew she’d considered wrapping her arms around him, but was pretty sure she hadn’t acted on the urge.

The bed was warm and rumpled. Lou had slept beside her. What, if anything, had she said to him? She drank water, took ibuprofen, tried to eat. Her car wasn’t in the garage. After a short panic, she remembered that Alonzo had put her in a cab––another gesture of caring that disposed her to fall in love with him. The evening looped through her head as she called the school to say she was running late.

Bryce stumbled into the kitchen rubbing his eyes and put the kettle on. He looked at the clock, then at her.

“I’m late,” she said.

“Rough night?” His lips twitched. Was he about to smile?

“A friend took me out after the open mike.”

“Mom, you look wrecked.”

Sallie shook her head. “Don’t worry.”

The taxi honked. Bryce followed her to the door. “A cab?”

“Don’t ask, honey,” she said. She pulled him close in a tight hug. Her head fit under his chin. She could hear his heart and feel his ribs against her. He gave her an awkwardly tender pat.

“I’m going over to the cable TV station to interview for a job,” he said. “Just temporary until I go back to school next semester. Just to get out and do something.”

Caught up in herself, she hadn’t even registered the strangeness of his being up so early. Off guard and warmed by his touch and his concern, for a moment, she’d let go of her worry about him.

The cab honked again. Sallie stepped back. “That’s great,” she said, careful not to express her elation. “Good luck.”

Alonzo was talking with Camille when Sallie arrived at the Black Cat. She signed up and hesitated before approaching him. He’d saved her a seat again. Van Dall hopped up to the stage and shouted. Camille whispered something to Alonzo and sat down just in front of him at the end of a table of poets. The edge of an elaborate and colorful tattoo peeked over the neckline of her shirt. Sallie couldn’t figure out what it was. It made one wonder. Camille’s shirt was the same pale green color as Sallie’s sweater, a color that worked for redheads. It was embarrassing, after her week of fantasies, to even sit beside Alonzo. She wished she could know if he’d thought of her. Maybe she should get a tattoo. Olivia’s name, in a heart on her bicep. Bryce on the other arm.

Camille scampered up to the stage to whistles and stomps. She read a poem about elephants mourning the deaths of their babies. Sallie didn’t want to like it, and part of her wanted to ask Camille what she knew about dead offspring. Still, the poem worked. Sallie almost cried. When Camille sat down Alonzo patted the girl’s shoulder. Sallie dismissed her jealous pang as ridiculous and inappropriate while wondering if she and Alonzo would go out again after the reading. She’d do it––she wouldn’t drink so much.

When Alonzo went up, he performed the latest version of his red-haired lady poem.


Toss that M–80

To the red-haired lady,

nothing shady

I give you my knights,

my bishops.

My queen

Checkmate me.

Camille beamed. Sallie clapped politely. The girl turned to her, green eyes lovely and wide, “Isn’t he great?” Camille said. “So unassuming and…” She leaned close to Sallie’s ear. “So sexy.” Sallie flinched and hoped Camille didn’t notice.

Van Dall called Sallie to the stage. Alonzo brushed past her––she felt the press of his arm, but he and the rest of the crowd blurred into a buzz of colored noise. She was an idiot. Deferential, glad to be of use—echoes of Eliot crowded out her own new lines—At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the fool. The only redemptive fact was that she’d kept it all to herself. No confessions shouted into the microphone or whispered late at night or anywhere else.

Words spilled out––her “Solstice” poem, even though she didn’t think anyone in the audience would like it, even though it wasn’t nearly as good as her current work and she wasn’t sure she’d remember all the lines in the right order. “On the longest night of the year,” she began. “We are wakeful, holding our children, instead of each other.”

She found her seat and had a hard time catching her breath. Alonzo shone his smile on her. Camille turned, patted her knee, and whispered, “I loved the image of the small blue room and the part about the father murmuring lullabies.”

Sallie felt a rush of hate. Now, where had that come from? Hate. She hated Camille. She hated Alonzo. She hated Olivia. All those years, working, raising her kids, losing sleep, she’d felt like a pretty good mother––“good enough” as they said. But who would call a mother good enough if her kid didn’t reach adulthood? She hated Olivia for making her a bad mother. She hated Lamont, Lou, herself.

Around her people clapped and clapped. They had listened and they clapped.

Alonzo whispered, “Camille and I are going upstairs after. Want to come?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Come on. Didn’t you have fun last time?” He nudged Camille’s chair with his foot. “Camille, tell her to come.”

Camille nodded with enthusiasm. “Yeah, come on!”

“Maybe next week,” Sallie said.

“Sallie,” said Alonzo. “Please.”

Sallie shook her head.

“I told Camille we both know “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by heart and she doesn’t believe me. Let’s prove it.”

I have measured out my life in coffee spoons

What kind of young person memorizes such a poem?

I grow old…I grow old…

I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled

When she was twenty and taken by the startling imagery, seduced by the rhythms of the language, it hardly mattered that the meaning eluded her. At fifty, those same words seeped into her deepest core, lingered and resonated.

Camille, Alonzo, herself, everyone there, in the Black Cat Lounge, was ridiculous––too young, too old, too mediocre. Olivia was dead. Alonzo and Camille would get drunk tonight and fall into bed. He’d admire her tattoo and appreciate her Brazilian wax job.

Alonzo was staring at Sallie with an uncharacteristic look of concern. “Please?”

She forced a smile. “Another time. I promise.”

He shrugged. “Okay. But, Camille, we both really do know the whole thing. We recited it last week. With no mistakes.” He inclined his head toward Sallie, draped an arm over her shoulders and launched into the last three lines.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

Sallie joined in. She couldn’t help it. She loved that poem. Their voices blended, rose and fell. The chatter in the room stopped.

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us and we drown.

The crowd clinked spoons against glasses and clapped encouragement—a ragtag bunch with nothing in common but a naïve faith in the power of language. Ridiculous, really. Sallie saw her smile reflected in Alonzo’s.

He squeezed her shoulder. “Come on. We’ll skip the Italian part.”

The room waited.

She took a breath and they began:

Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky…words familiar and right in the mouth. Bryce was alive. Poetry filled the Black Cat every Tuesday at eight. Perhaps she and Lou could still manage a strenuous hike. She’d read recently that polar bears could swim as far as sixty-two miles.

Eliza Amon
Photo Credit: Fields of Attraction by Bob Owen is licensed under CC BY- 2.0. No changes were made.