Desde hace un mes estoy dejándome la barba larga. Le marco los bordes con la afeitadora. Después la dejo crecer sola, sin ningún cuidado. Confieso que la hago solamente para imitar al protagonista de la excelente serie “High Maintenance” de HBO, un simpático dealer de marihuana que circula la ciudad de Nueva York en bicicleta y vende su producto a domicilio. Todos se refieren a él como “the Guy” (el Chango, para los argentinos del interior; ¿el Chabón, para los porteños?). La serie –que entre 2012 y 2015 era sólo para la web- está estrenando en 2019 su tercera temporada televisiva y ya no creo que nos revele su verdadero nombre.
Además de darnos un breve vistazo a la vida del Guy, cada capítulo cuenta dos o más tramas desconectadas entre sí que, por ahora, jamás han sido continuadas en las siguientes entregas. Muy de vez en cuando un personaje que ya vimos se asoma, visita un rato una historia ajena, pero todo lo demás es nuevo en cada ocasión. Sólo este barbudo, amable y relajado sigue ahí para hilar casi imperceptiblemente las historias de estos desconocidos. Entra a sus casas con su casco colgando de la mochila, abre un maletín y dice algo como: “¿Qué les gustaría hoy?”. Ellos a veces lo invitan a quedarse a charlar un rato. Otras simplemente consultan sobre los distintos tipos de porro, se deciden por una bolsita, pagan, y sus historias continúan sin él. Green Crack, God’s Gift, o Sour D –“que es esa Corona que tomás tranquilo el sábado a la noche”- son algunas de los nombres que llegamos a escuchar.
El Guy no es un gran comerciante. Más bien, nos da a entender que su emprendimiento no le rinde demasiado. Sin embargo, en su estilo artesanal y amigable hay un valor agregado que los clientes aprecian. En un momento de la segunda temporada en que debe reposar un par de días por un accidente que tuvo en su bicicleta, un amigo que maneja un Uber acepta salir a vender por un porcentaje del total. Le dice que va a cambiar el método porque es más rápido hacer bajar a la gente y que la transacción ocurra directamente dentro del auto. “Pero así no vas a conocer adentro de las casas, que es la mejor parte”, responde él. La sociedad entre ellos no prospera y el Guy retoma el trabajo. Cuando una pareja le expresa con real emoción que se alegra de verlo otra vez y le invita un trago en uno de esos hermosos patios ocultos de Brooklyn, nosotros no podemos sino creerle que esa debe ser la parte especial del negocio.
Ben Sinclair interpreta al personaje y es además uno de los dos creadores de la serie junto a Katja Blichfeld, su ex mujer -hecho que tiene alguna resonancia en la trama. A Sinclair la barba larga le queda bien. Le crece enrulada y para los costados. Ese contraste le halaga y afina el rostro; pero a la vez le da un leve toque payasesco que termina de acercarnos al personaje. La mía, en cambio, es demasiado dura, no se despega mucho de mi cara. Apenas creció un poco, empieza a doblarse y meterse para adentro. Cuando está larga, como ahora, me hace los cachetes muy redondos y la cabeza aún más grande de lo que ya es. Para peor de males, me parece que el increíble volumen que llega a tener la de Sinclair en “High Maintenance” no es posible en realidad. Tengo la sospecha (sin más datos que la observación) de que gran parte de su barba no es más que una prótesis para el rodaje.
Ya casi nunca me afeito la barba al ras. Debo haberlo hecho dos veces en los últimos cinco años. Me la recorto lo más bajo que mi maquinita eléctrica puede, que, según indican los prospectos, es algo así como una barba de dos días. No tengo idea de si así me queda mejor o peor que de otra manera. En una época decía que lo hacía sólo por comodidad: porque es más fácil que rasurarse del todo o mantener una barba prolija. Pero esa no es toda la verdad. Más honesto sería decir que siento que la gente que conozco se daría cuenta si yo cambiara repentinamente de estilo y, después de tanto tiempo, empezara a cuidármela bien. Considerarían que estoy presumiendo. Y me daría vergüenza que pensaran eso.
Esto de la barba es ridículo. Voy a cortármela esta semana. O también podría esperar a tener un evento importante. Hacerlo para la ocasión. Un evento importante es, vale aclarar, una cena en casa de amigos. Esas son las interacciones sociales que más me entusiasman en esta época. A cócteles o salidas a bares voy sin volver a mi casa. Son continuaciones de mi día. Y como el resto de las actividades empiezan recién cuando la anterior terminó. Pero la organización de una cena empieza antes necesariamente. Y modifica, aunque sea en lo más mínimo, el cronograma ordinario. Hay que salir a comprar algo, hay que ponerlo en la heladera, hay que volver, buscarlo y tener cómo llevarlo. Disfruto cada vez más de esa responsabilidad. Siento que les estoy rindiendo un pequeño homenaje a mis amigos. Mientras la gente alrededor necesita y pide más tiempo para sus obligaciones, yo gasto del mío en la tarea de buscar unas latas de cerveza o unas pintas de helado. Aún más, lo gasto para disfrutar mejor de otra cantidad de tiempo que utilizaré sólo para estar con ellos.
La última cena de estas que tuve fue en la casa de una amiga alemana que, como yo, está viviendo temporalmente en Nueva York. Ella se encargó del grueso de la organización. Nos hizo reservar la fecha con casi un mes de anticipación, nos fue dando o sugiriendo tareas específicas a cada uno y así enganchó a todos. Mientras tanto nunca tuvo reparos en mostrarnos la alegría que hacer evento le producía. Tenía razón: cinco personas que se juntan a comer pizzas, tomar unos tragos y escuchar música. ¿Qué puede ser mejor que eso? Yo también estuve entusiasmado desde el momento mismo en que nos invitó, pero al comienzo no lo demostré demasiado. Pienso que un poco para hacerme el canchero, el ocupado, el que tiene muchos otros programas en cartera antes. Como supuestamente anda la gente en esta ciudad. Pero la pose me duró muy poco tiempo. En un par de días la olvidé y recuperé mis pensamientos normales. Por suerte, en el medio nadie más que yo se dio cuenta del cambio.
En estos días le debo a “High Maintenance” también haber recordado un personaje que alguna vez tuve la idea de crear. Nunca escribí suficiente ficción como para darle vida de verdad, así que la exposición esquemática que daré en estos párrafos finales serán el único testimonio de su existencia.
Se trata de un joven cuya obsesión es encontrar el amor de su vida. En su cabeza esa determinación tiene mucha fuerza y sentido, pero a los ojos de las personas que lo rodean lo hace parecer más de una vez un poco perdido o andando a la deriva. Cae a menudo profundamente enamorado de las mujeres que conoce. Las quiere y ellas lo quieren. Pero su perpetua ansiedad lo hace confundirse, cometer errores. Cosas menores, por cierto. En principio, es demasiado puro como para engañar o herir irreversiblemente. Y aunque esas equivocaciones no llegan a ser graves, él las vive con mucho dramatismo y se avergüenza profundamente de ellas. Pide perdón y es perdonado. La profundidad de su remordimiento hace que los que lo rodean se apiaden de él y sientan la necesidad de cuidarlo, casi de adoptarlo como a un hijo.
Singularmente, a él no suelen abandonarlo. Es él quien deja a las personas atrás; deja a las parejas, a los amigos, a los parientes. De hecho, alrededor suyo todos ellos son felices, felices de poder comprenderlo y protegerlo. Es él quien siente que no merece ese lugar. Cuando se va, esos seres queridos se entristecen, pero al cabo comprenden que ese tiempo que compartieron con él fue un regalo que perdurará. Así va sembrando cosas buenas sin poder disfrutarlas. No es tan diáfanamente querible como el Guy o mi amiga, pero es también una especie de héroe de la vida cotidiana.
Tell us what the world has been to you, in the dark places and the light.
California. August 1965.
The mysterious illness had been coming and going for nigh on two years. Now, as I waited for my father to navigate his way through LA traffic, I felt it creeping up on me again. Closing my eyes against the setting sun, I felt the heat searing into my temples. The first thing that would come would be the headache. Then the dizziness. Then the nosebleed. I made myself small in a sliver of shade on the back seat and willed myself not to vomit. The first time this sour feeling had took hold of me was on November 22, 1963. That morning, I was in my room, waiting for my stepmother to finish watching her soap operas. The voices of suburban white people—perfectly groomed types who lived in perfectly decorated homes, filled with all the products advertised during commercial breaks–places that people like my people only were allowed to see when we were cleaning, washing, and cooking in them–droned along the hallway. They made the loud humming noise that flies produce when they are wobbling weakly through the air, on their way somewhere to die.
I contemplated writing a poem from the point of view of a dying fly. It proved futile. The only thing I knew about flies is that the only time they stopped flying was to either vomit or defecate. I didn’t think anyone would like a poem about that kind of thing. The first poem of mine that had been published, about a butterfly, had been well enough liked. But it had a plot in which the butterfly had to emerge from its cocoon and learn to fly. Flies emerged from maggots. I was fairly certain there was no interesting plot to be found there. Finally, the whole concept just made me feel nauseous, so I laid down, closed my eyes and tried to listen for the end of the soap opera.
Then my step-mother started to scream. I sighed and waited for her to call someone to kill whatever bug had frightened her. But, she didn’t. She simply kept screaming, oh no, oh no, oh Lord no, which caused our guard dog to start barking and scratching at the back door. The kindly old soul, who had been napping on the windowsill, woke up with a start, frowned and rushed down the hallway. A shiver ran down my spine as I followed her.
She hovered in the doorway of the living room and I cautiously peeked around her. My stepmother was perched on the edge of the sofa. Her hands moved in a slow frenzy, flailing around in front of her face. She kept reaching to clutch her temples, as if in trying to keep her head from spinning off her neck. My father rushed in from his workshop, then dropped down into a chair and looked around as if he was not sure where he was. I reached for the hand of the kindly old soul as the words CBS News Bulletin flashed on the screen, then revealed Walter Cronkite, in his shirt sleeves, rapidly shuffling through papers saying, we are waiting for confirmation, here I have, no, wait, that has not been confirmed yet, while newsroom workers rushed around in the background.
The kindly old soul’s grip on my hand tightened so hard my fingers went numb. Then the illness came on me and I reeled back. My head spun and my stomach boiled. My eyes blurred and my nose began to bleed. Then I buckled forward and vomited as Walter Cronkite stooped flinging papers around, turned, stared at me and slowly stated: The priests, the two priests who were with Kennedy, say he is dead of his bullet wounds.
Later that day, people gathered in our living room to watch the news reports. No one had scolded me for throwing up—Papa Earl had simply cleaned up after me and Grandma Fannie had made me a glass of water with baking soda. My father did not move from his chair all afternoon and only nodded to people as they came on. Women clustered around my step-mother on the sofa and kept up a low moaning of no no no oh Lord no. The news played the footage of the President’s convoy moving through Dallas over and over again, in between interviewing officials and filming the thousands of people who were crying and hugging one another in the streets.
The kindly old soul put her arm around me as I shivered and stared at a black child who stood, alone, draped in terrified sorrow, in the crowd. I wondered if, being a boy, he would cry aloud in front of everyone. Only a few minutes before seeing him, I had smiled as the camera captured the joy of a little white girl who had jumped up and down on an island in the middle of the street, waving happily and calling out I love you Mr. Kennedy. And the adults of every color who were near her had beamed with pride as the President waved back at her.
I wished for those children that there had been time for President Kennedy to do what he had done on his visit to our city only a few months before. On that sweltering June day, when my step grandfather saw his motorcade crossing the intersection nearest us, he grabbed my hand and said: There comes the Great Man his own self—his Da is from Ireland, don’t you know? Then he tried to make a way to the edge of the sidewalk. In my effort to avoided being crushed in the excitement, I wriggled myself so forcefully through the crowd that I ended up stumbling off the curb and into the street. When the President’s motorcade began to slow down and motorcycle cops turned in my direction, I was sure I was in trouble.
Before I could run back into the crowd, I felt a hand reach down and take hold of mine. A marvelous something drifted down around me. The sound of the cheering crowd and the Secret Service walkie talkies went silent for a moment. Turning around in the ecstasy ballerinas feel whilst in the throes of a pirouette, I lifted off the ground for a moment, and found myself looking up into the smiling face of the President. He lifted me up and kissed my cheek and said, careful there, little lady, mind the street, now. Then he gently lowered me and I floated to the ground. The police motorcycles backed away and made room for me to walk backwards to the sidewalk. When I was safely at my step-grandfather’s side, the convey started to move again. The President waved and smiled at me as I jumped up and down, calling, I love you, Mr. Kennedy! Then the car drove away to carry him into the awful future that no one could have imagined in our worst nightmares.
The kindly old soul sighed and stroked my hand as I looked slowly around the living room and saw grown men’s face streaked with tears. My step-grandfather stared at me and I gazed back as steady as I could to try to still the heaving in his throat. I tried to do the same for my father, but he had slumped over, buried his face in his hands, and let the trembling of his shoulders rock him back and forth in his chair. My stepmother and her friends huddled together hugging one another while my step-grandmother stared at the TV with a frown cracked with tears on her face. I felt the illness fade as my eyes began to see clearly.
Someone had murdered the Great Man himself. And whoever it was also doing whatever they could to kill the spirit of everyone who would follow him into a brighter future. Something inside me went cold and I refused to give whoever that someone was—no matter how much bigger than me they might be—the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I stood still and bravely stared at the TV as the horrible footage was shown over and over again. Then I squeezed the hand of the kindly old soul to quell her tears and she smiled when I told her, I see. I hear. I will remember. I will write. And I am not afraid. No. I am not afraid.
I did not worry about vomiting. We were only minutes away from my uncle’s house. Once there, I knew his second wife would make me a glass of water with baking soda. The only thing that bothered me was that the LA traffic seemed worse than usual and we had been stuck in the same place for what felt like hours. Yet, I knew it was only minutes and this was nothing new. Every time we came to visit my uncle we roasted alive in the car while the traffic made up its mind to move or not. But, this time, something was wrong. And whatever it was it had brought the sickness back to me.
The sky was dirtier than usual, with smog so thick it looked like smoke. So, there was no way for me to judge time passing because I could not see the sun moving toward the horizon. But the way the breeze was cooling let me know the sun had tired of trying to shine through the filthy LA air. Then, suddenly, the car lurched forward as if it had been startled. I sat up to find the source of the bright light that passed through the window.
Being a child who was not afraid of anything, I had never paid much attention to monsters. But the hundred centipede feet of a hard chill ran down my neck when I saw the hand that held the flashlight. It was whiter than what my elders said Death did to your bones. Blue blood surged in its veins like snakes coupling in the moonlight. Then a sound boomed toward me. Out of the car, now, and I tumbled out onto the pavement when the monstrous thing flung open the door.
My father and stepmother were already on the ground, hands clasped behind their backs, eyes cast to the ground. Instinct told me to remain curled up where I had fallen. Narrowing my eyes to slits that made them appear closed, I surveyed the scene as best as I could. Around me were the black boots motorcycle cops wear. The sound of walkie talkies crackled in the air, fusing all their messages into one piercing shriek. Whoever these creatures were surrounding me could well be whoever or whatever had killed the Great Man. I laid still, played dead and one of them barked, What’s wrong with her? My heart steadied when my father said, Nothing, sir, she’s just been sick today, that’s all.
The walkies talkies blared again and joined the rising cacophony of sirens, helicopters, bullets, glass breaking. Black voices came screeching from the depths of their souls. White voices barked and bayed like the hounds of Hell. I thought of my cat. I hoped Grandma Fannie had remembered to give her milk. I thought of Papa Earl and the pride on his face when the Great Man had kissed my cheek. I remembered that I forgot to make my bed before we left for this journey. I wondered if my teacher would miss me. I knew I would miss him—Mr. Lopez, a serious man who people said had been in trouble in his home country of Spain—and who had been the first to submit my poetry to the school district magazine. Then I thought of the day when he had asked all of us to close our eyes while he told the story of the time when he thought he was about to die and how he had seen all the things of his life pass before him. Mr. Lopez said that when you are about to die, your life would pass in front of you in only a minute. So, I closed my eyes and started counting slowly to 60. I did all I could to stretch out the time it took to get to one minute before what was coming happened.
But nothing happened. The only sound was the sun setting with a dull thud like it always does in California. Then a moment of silence drifted down and the boots moved away from me. For a moment I realized I how sad the kindly old soul would feel when I did not come home. Then I hoped some—maybe Mr. Lopez—would write a poem to remember me by. When the white monstrous hand dragged me to my feet, I made sure not to look at my father—this was not something he deserved to see.
A grunting voice said, all right, go on your way and the creature shoved me toward my father, who carefully led me to the car and kept his eyes to the ground as he said, Thank you, sir, thank you. I slid into the back seat, opened my eyes and stared hard at the sign on the barricade: Turn left or get shot. And as we drove away, I glared at the monsters and mouthed, I am not afraid of you.
My father turned left onto my uncle’s street and drove very slowly as red and blue lights flashed behind us. When he had carefully parked the car in the backyard, I took my time getting out. The strange illness had gone. I shook the stench of the monsters out of my hair, straightened my back, gathered my diary and pencil box from the back seat, and peered into the darkness of my uncle’s backyard. As far as I could see there were none of those barricade creatures there. The hurried movements of my father and stepmother swirled around me as they took our bags from the car. I clutched my diary and pencil case close when my aunt rushed up and hugged me, weeping and exclaiming, Oh, baby, you must be so scared. I gazed quietly at her until she was calm and said, No. I am not scared.
I reckoned that if I could write fast enough, I would make the school district deadline. Mr. Lopez would be pleased and would gift me with as many books as I wanted. As I wrote, the noises outside grew louder. More screams, more shrieks, more bullets flying, an explosion. I remembered a line from one of Mr. Lopez’s books: The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about. Then another one: In the sky nobody is asleep. I was glad that it was me, and not Mr. Lopez, who would be writing a poem about what was happening now.
My kinfolk reckoned Mr. Lopez was a good teacher for me. After all, it was he who listened to me, did not tape my mouth shut, and because he did, I was quiet. And it was he who sent my poems to the school district magazine and made my family proud when they showed the copies around the neighborhood. No one worried that this wonderful teacher was a Spanish anarchist. In fact, I do not know if they even knew that about him. And no one raised an eyebrow when I read the diary of a young girl murdered by monsters. It had been given to me by one of the women whose houses my people cleaned—a quiet woman who answered my curiosity about the tattooed numbers on her wrist by quoting the same Spanish poet Mr. Lopez liked so much: I am the intense shadow of my tears.
Some people might have been concerned that these kinds of things were too grown-up for a child my age. But no one worried. As far as everyone was concerned, I had “something”—I was, they said, “kind of special in a funny way.” I could read far beyond the ability of my classmates and nothing anyone could do could dissuade me from spending all my time indoors with books, instead of going out play. My spelling had improved so greatly and so quickly that it was proposed I be skipped a grade. But my father shunned that idea, reminding my step-mother of my headaches and nosebleeds, and saying firmly: No, leave her where she is; the older kids might make her nervous.
Yet, I was not a nervous child. Nothing seemed to unbalance me. Not even the massive columns of black smoke that darkened the skies around my uncle’s house as the evening wore on. I sat in the kitchen with everyone and kept writing. What was going on outside had been written about before in other places. I wanted to be the one who wrote about it here: Let there be a landscape of open eyes and bitter wounds on fire.
Although the smoke—outside the house and inside the poetry–was making my eyes water, I did not whimper and shake like my step-mother did. She mumbled about how none of this would be happening had my father listened to her and not decided to make our vacation be this visit his cousin. But my father just shook his head and said: We could have gone on vacation to the moon and this still would have happened—it’s been coming for a long time. Now, just stop your griping. Or you’ll end up like that Odessa woman.
Odessa Bradford was the woman who had started the Philadelphia riots a year earlier. Well, that’s what the news reports said. But everyone said she had not meant to start a riot. It was just that when the police tried to drag her out of her car, the Negroes simply weren’t having it. Philadelphia white people were on edge for 3 whole nights and days. And not just them in that city. All summer, Negro inner cities had erupted, and each time, it was because the police had kept doing what they do, as some of the elders muttered under their breath.
In Rochester, New York, a white woman had called them because some young Negroes were having a party. The police had roughed up the partygoers, and three days later, 1,000 Negroes had been arrested and 4 were dead. In Harlem, a white man had sprayed water on some Negro boys sitting on a stoop and screamed, Dirty niggers, I’ll wash you clean. When the boys threw rocks at him, the police came in and killed one of them. Seven days later, 465 negroes had been arrested. Everyone said this was because New York white folks were worried that their rage would spill one or two streets over into the Upper West Side enclave.
New Jersey Negroes outdid the Harlem ones with three riots in a row, starting in Jersey City, moving on to Patterson, then to Elizabeth, and got bigger each time the police pushed too hard against youth who had no place to go to get relief from the sweltering summer heat because the city councils had closed the parks in their inner-city neighborhood.
And, now, I reckoned Hollywood and Beverley Hills white folks were scared that what was going on in my uncle’s neighborhood would spread across LA like a wildfire. As I thought about this, another line of poetry floated around me: Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful! Images were rushing in front of my eyes so fast that I could not write fast enough to keep up with them. The Great Man’s smile. The Great Man’s voice, a strong mantle wrapping around the grit in my heart: careful there, little lady, mind the street, now. My heart whispered, I love you, Mr. Kennedy. I fell in the street. But I got up. And I am not afraid.
I did my best to concentrate and wait for a poem to flow out of me while my father and step-mother continued to fuss. My uncle shook his head and fanned himself with a piece of cardboard. Earlier in the day he had broken down a box and handed us all a piece of it. We had not been able to open the windows or doors for 4 days now. The smoke was so thick it would have choked us. And we could not leave the house because no one was allowed out into the streets after 8 at night.
But people were out—tens of thousands of them. It seemed that the Negroes of Los Angeles were intent on outdoing all the other inner-city Negroes in the nation. And white folks were so scared that the governor had called in the National Guard. Before the curfew had been imposed, my father and uncle had ventured out to the corner to see what was happening. The main road was full of National Guard soldiers and hundreds of police. They carried guns with bayonets on the ends and wore riot gear. But the Negroes were not afraid. They were smashing sidewalks and pulling up chunks of them to hurl at them. They had turned over police cars and smashed up every white-owned shop on the boulevard. They had petrol bombed anything that stood in their way. Bullets were flying but the Negroes persisted. From the sound of it, this was a riot that was turning into a war. My father just nodded when my uncle said: Well, it’s been coming—the way they treat us is a shame.
My step-mother had mumbled something about how Negroes need to stop acting up. But my father had asked her if Blondella Woods had been acting up when a white shop owner had assaulted her after accusing her of stealing something. Once a judge determined that she had not stolen anything, he let her out of jail, but no charges were filed against the white man who had attacked her. Chicago Negroes organized a peaceful boycott of his store, marching up and down in front of it, with signs that warned people off shopping there. But the Chicago Police Department had a shoot on sight policy that applied only to Negroes, so when they arrived, with the Illinois State troopers, and began firing at the protestors, things rapidly deteriorated. Now you tell me, my father asked, what did our people do to deserve all that?
My step-mother had looked away and chewed her fingernails. I wished she could be more like me—not scared. But I reckoned whatever kindly old soul had been her friend when she was a child had run away when the Klan came to have a talk with Papa Earl. From what I knew about it, she was only a little girl of 6 at the time. Now, 35 years later, she was still sacred. As I watched her hand shake as she washed dishes that she had already washed twice, I hoped that my kindly old soul was not worrying about me. We were meant to have returned from vacation by now—my father only had four days off and they had passed. It seemed a shame I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call to let her know I was fine. But, not only can kindly old souls not talk on the telephone, there was no service. No telephone, no electricity, no TV, only the battery powered radio that constantly blared out the curfew order.
I kept writing as the war outside worn on. It is a good thing we turned left or we would have got shot and that’s not something I would have liked a lot. Now we are waiting for this war to end but someone tell me how did it begin? They said killing is wrong but they sing it like their favorite song. None of these things I don’t really know but if you ask me if I’m scared I’ll tell you no. You can do what you will, and you say what you will but there is something in me you can never still. They killed the Great Man his own self and I did not cry that’s not what he would want he would just want me to try. All of this will pass by and by don’t ask me when until you tell me why. And be careful, be careful, be careful, watch what you do and watch what you say, because this war may come to you one day.
Then I left my diary open so my step-mother could read it. Even though it was after curfew and best for us to go to bed and put out the candles, I knew she wouldn’t sleep. She’d sit up all night as she had done every night, smoking, and reading my poems in the glow of her cigarette. And each morning, she’d just gaze at me with a sad smile on her face. So, I wrote every evening, until the day when it appeared the Negroes had lost the war. I did not cry as I watched men in white coats lift a dead man off the ground in front of my uncle’s house. Even though part of his skull had been shot off, no illness came over me. Instead, I only felt an intense sorrow because I did not know his name. I wanted to write a poem and dedicate it to him.
We packed our bags into the car and set off for home. As my father turned left and had to stop at a barricade, I stared hard at the soldiers and police gathered there. Some of them glared at me. I smiled at them, and when one tried to smile back, I frowned suddenly, shook my head and mouthed at him, I am not afraid of you. The mantle around the grit in my heart thickened and settled comfortably when his face betrayed his confused weakness. Then I handed my diary to my step-mother and said, don’t look at them, and hoped that whatever it was in my diary that made her feel better would be enough to keep her from being afraid when what’s been coming a long time came to our inner-city neighborhood.
About Fanny Garvey:
Fanny Elisabeth Garvey has worked in the margins of the literary and theatre worlds since the age of 5 years old. Her literary trajectory includes short stories published over the course of 13 years in the San Diego Unified School District’s Quest magazine, being co-editor and contributor to Roadwork, an independent literary magazine published in the 1970s, contributing a short story in 1996 to When A Loved One Dies, and awards for her play scripts, including the Alan Bennett Award in 1999. Indeed, Alan Bennett himself described her play, The Tragedy of Africa, Alba, Eire in America as being “a history and morality play about colonialism – a huge play with a vast canvas.” Her most recent work was the staging of her play Miss Lulu’s Lullaby, at the San Diego History Center in 2017.
After spending her young adulthood as a part-time college student while working in various pink-collar jobs, including several years as a clerk typist in the Department of Comparative Literature at UC San Diego in the 1970s, she obtained a Master’s Degree in Renaissance Theory and Culture from the University of Sussex in 1999. From 1999 until 2014, she held various jobs teaching English literacy to marginalized groups in Manchester, England; Oaxaca, Mexico; and Southern California.
She has recently completed one of a planned series of novels about the experiences of her ancestors by fictionalizing their journeys through over 200 years of American history. Covering the period 1720 through 1920, the series illuminates how race, class, social and political dynamics impacted and defined people of combined African, Scottish and Irish ancestry in the United States.
We tend to think of Sylvia Plath in dark tones — the poet and novelist famously struggled with depression and mental illness in her work (her most notable being her novel The Bell Jar and her poetry collections The Colossus and Ariel) before meeting an untimely death at only 30-years-old.
But, Plath had a brighter side to her. She apparently wrote three children’s books. And we probably haven’t heard of them because they’re out of print and some were published after her death.
It started out innocently enough. For Margaret, anyway.
Margaret kept an old inn on the south side of Omaha. A two-story Victorian with a paint job that looked like sherbet: a cream yellow with white trim. The yard was marked not by a fence, but by a fantasy garden with paths winding in and around thick hedges. There were several possible paths: one by the pear tree, one through the rose trellis, one by the bed of embroidered violets – where it was almost impossible to pass without a languorous stretch.
Margaret had always harbored the hope, secretly, that a gentleman passing through town might find her irresistible, and they would be married in the garden. From very early on, with hopeful eyes, she watched each man pass.
She watched their mustaches, and learned she very much liked a man who wore a mustache – if it was kept properly trimmed. She liked deep-set dark eyes and a pronounced brow: of this she was certain. And, perhaps most important, an easy smile.
Margaret became precise at determining what sort of man would leave her rooms clean and which ones would leave them in disarray. When she was cleaning up after them, she would scold the messy ones to herself when they were gone.
“Oh dear. Never be the type to find a good woman, would you, Mr. Twiggs,” she’d say to herself. “Look at the way you’ve left this place. Not at all fit for a woman, much less a fine woman. Such as myself.”
Margaret rather enjoyed these fantasies. In no time at all, the room would be squeaky clean once again. Sunshine would kiss at the lace curtains and make them glow white.
But, over the years, not one of her tenants approached her with that special look of romance in his eyes. It was always “Wake me at six, would you please?” or “Where can I get a good lamb chop around here?”
Margaret grew lonelier and lonelier. She took greater and greater solace in her garden – which she thought was fit for the Prince of France. She slowly lost contact with most of the rest of Omaha.
On the rare occasion when mail was delivered, Maybell, her maid, would always set it on the piano at the foot of the stairs. Never more than a few stray pieces from friends or relatives, the letters were so stale, Margaret wondered at one point if Maybell wasn’t writing them herself – to humor a lonely woman.
Then, one day, a piece of mail came which attracted Margaret’s attention. Quite unlike the dreary solicitations from the local church, it was a very distinct item which had clearly been misdelivered. The envelope was handmade, its soft frayed edges carefully torn, to give it an artistic look. The script of the address was blocky and decidedly male, Margaret thought, but flowed free and soulful as if written by caring, sensitive fingers.
She returned the letter to the large flat bowl atop the piano for the postman to pick up. She started up the stairs, but, overcome by curiosity, retraced her steps and retrieved the letter.
Later, as Margaret sat reading her book in an overstuffed easy chair in an alcove window, half spectacles atop the bridge of her nose, she remained acutely aware of the paper rectangle, unopened on the end table next to her.
Its arrival had distracted Margaret. She imagined it emitted a dull rumble, vibrating at a low hum throughout every room. She felt its vibration more through the base of her skull than anywhere else. Its presence became the focus of her thoughts, her attentions. Wherever the letter happened to be, it remained the central point of the house.
She put down her book, picked up the letter, and felt the texture of the paper with her fingertips. She held it up to the sunlight to see if she could make anything out. Anything at all. The paper was thick and heavy and revealed nothing.
She set the letter down, but, quick, picked it up again. Before she fully knew what she was doing she had run her finger along the inside lip popping the seal on the envelope. She freed the page and unfolded it before her.
Nervous, her excited fingers held the page in her lap. She closed both lids fully, as if to cool her eyes and collect her thoughts; then she opened them slowly. Her heart raced as she read:
It is with deep regret that I must write this letter, for, though I had hoped to win your favor, your last letter has dashed those hopes. Have I been merely troublesome to you, that you so coldly declare that you no longer welcome my letters? If I felt I had a chance, I would continue on forever to win your heart. The intimacy of what we’ve shared, even though only through our letters, has moved me deeply. I greatly honor our correspondence and what you’ve shared with me. As it is, I realize they may not have meant as much to you.
With heavy heart I bid adieu.
With much love and affection,
Yours regretfully –
Margaret could barely contain herself. She felt compassion well up inside her for this poor man. What he must be feeling? And indignation for this heartless Simone! How could she!
Perhaps what moved Margaret was the thoughtful preparation that must have gone into that letter. The coarse grain of the paper and the rough feel of torn edges spoke of masculine solicitude. She ran her fingers along it absently.
The delicate round flow of the letters. The As capped as mountain tops. The Os a full reach of the hand back to the mouth to kiss the fingertips. The Ts crossed with a simple thrust. Those black lines flowed clean and solid.
Margaret felt as if she already knew Clarence well, and the pain in these words deeply struck her. She immediately felt a distinct sympathy for him. Simone was making a terrible mistake.
She perceived that Clarence could only be a truly good man to have written such a letter, and, as she tried to imagine what he looked like, thought of his close-cut black hair and angular jawline.
“Tsk, Tsk,” she said, and her voice sounded like the distant stroke of a rake. She swivelled the chair around in the alcove to gaze out across her garden. The wintry sunshine bathed the yews in a bright haze of diffused light.
She carried the letter around with her for several weeks, until it became tattered and worn from reading and rereading.
Then one day she was sitting at a bus stop, and the evening chill was seeping in. She bunched her shoulders up under her chin and shoved her hands deep in her pockets. Her hand clutched something that she assumed was a Kleenex. She was really paying more attention to keeping an eye out for the bus, when she made a sudden fist inside the jacket. As she grabbed at the paper, she realized she didn’t know quite what it was.
She played at it for a while, not wanting to take her hand out of the warm coat, and then remembered the letter. Slowly the idea took form until she knew exactly what she was going to do. She was going to write to him!
She was going to go home and write Clarence a letter. “Yessir,” she said to herself. “Done deal, O’Neill,” an expression of her father’s she liked to use when she knew she was alone. “Why didn’t I think of it earlier?” A slow smile played across her lips. She carefully flattened the letter out, replacing it gently in her inside jacket pocket this time.
“I’m going to do it!,” she was devilishly pleased with the prospect, and her own cunning. “Now where’s that bus?”
When she got home, Margaret had the stationery out of her desk drawer before she fully had her coat off. As soon as she sat down at her desk, however, she quickly went blank. She didn’t know quite what to say. She sat staring straight ahead and then her mouth parted with a slow smile.
I apologize for not getting back to you sooner. I did not mean to hurt your feelings. I simply had to sort out mine. You see, your letters have affected me, too. I took a short trip to the country to relax, and do some thinking. I hope you can understand. Forgive me if I’ve caused you pain.
P.S. – Please note my sister’s return address on the envelope. I’ll be staying with her for a bit.
And she signed it – Simone!
When Margaret sealed the envelope her fingers trembled. She found she had to walk directly to the mailbox and dispense with the letter immediately. She returned home and busied herself by making sandwiches. She realized after a bit that she wasn’t hungry. She wrapped the plate in foil and set it in the refrigerator.
She had to wait a full week before a reply came. She tried not to let Maybell see how anxious she was, but when she finally got the letter, she danced up the stairs like a little girl.
Margaret’s heart raced as her hands slid along the envelope’s seal. It opened like a short breath quickly inhaled.
She unfolded the letter and read:
I can certainly understand your needing time. I apologize for sending you my previous letter – I have been hasty and impatient. Since we have only met by mail, I had no right to push you. I just wanted to know how you felt. But having received your response, I now feel foolish – especially to learn you’ve been staying at your sister’s after being out of town.
Please forgive me. Take all the time you desire. I would love to hear from you.
Margaret’s heart fluttered. She pushed open the sliding door and stepped out onto the upstairs porch for fresh air. She felt light, and clutched the rail. She looked out over the trees to someplace far away.
She breathed in air as fresh as it had ever been. She wanted to take the car out but wasn’t sure if it still ran. She wanted to feel the wind in her hair.
She stepped back inside, as if in dream, and wrote the next letter:
It is good to hear from you. However, perhaps this is just the space we needed. Perhaps it’s time we met. Let me know if you think this is a good idea. If so, let’s say the train station at noon, two weeks from today, Thursday. What do you say – maybe we can go to lunch. Look for me under the big clock. I’ll be carrying my purse – a black bag, leather, with a silver buckle.
As Margaret folded this letter to mail, she looked at herself square in the vanity mirror.
“This is it,” she said, addressing herself. “If he’s met Simone before, I’m ruined. He’ll know I’m a fake. All is lost”
But the next week a letter came. Clarence had said splendid. The date was on. For the remaining week, the only way Margaret found she could pass the time without bursting was by gardening. Even the garden seemed to sing more than usual under her attentions.
The day arrived. Margaret sat on a bench on the east side of the station. The large station clock hung above her. Just below the clock, at the mezzanine level, an ornamental stone eagle helped keep silent guard.
She set her large black bag with the silver buckle next to her on the seat. She took up the entire bench so that no one would sit next to her and she and Clarence would have room to chat.
The station was filled with whistles and howls and rumbles, with trains gliding in and porters shouting, with hurried conversations, cart wheels turning across the tiled floors, food being prepared, and taxis queuing.
She looked hopefully at passers-by. A man walking alone caught her eye and her heart jumped. Those certainly could be the clean features of Clarence with his lean face, starched collar and pressed suit. As demure as possible, she looked down shyly and then back up – in time to see him walk past her without even a glance.
Ah well, she sighed.
Margaret was nervous. She had been used to courting the few men she’d known at her own inn. She knew where things were there, knew her tools: hot teas, a deck of cards, a porch swing. As an innkeeper, she had felt it quite proper to beg off and retire if she wanted, and nobody thought the worse of her.
But this was altogether different. She was completely exposed. What if he didn’t like her? What if he was so outraged by this impersonation he stormed away, screaming “imposter” for the whole train station to hear? What if …. oh, any number of things!
Margaret grew tired thinking so much. She stood up to glance around at the large clock. It was already a few minutes after noon and he was running late.
“He loves Simone,” Margaret reminded herself. “He’ll be here.”
Margaret turned on her heels, reassured, tired, and dropped into her seat on the bench to continue waiting. As she did so, however, something most peculiar happened. The bench was a typical train station type, with a series of slat boards stretched between two cast iron supports at either end. From years of use and with Margaret’s sudden jostling, one entire side of the bench slipped off, falling over dead slow; the cast iron hitting the tiled floors reverberated in the station hall.
Margaret’s weight on the other end caused the remainder of the bench to tilt up, and she took to the floor rather suddenly. She landed on her hands, skinned her knees and did a slight roll.
Now, one might expect the handbag to slide along the bench to the lower side. However, Margaret fell so suddenly, the momentum was such that the bag took to the air. It went straight up, ten feet or so, like the little weight that climbs the cable in the circus sideshow: TEST YOUR STRENGTH.
Margaret sprang up and tried very quickly to regain herself. She looked around for Clarence. She didn’t want him showing up now, for heaven’s sake. She brought her coat back around her shoulders, extending her arms. She straightened her skirt and tried to pull it further down to hide her scraped knees. She pushed her hair quickly back up under her hat and secured it with pins.
Then she took a good look around. The bench stood on end, the boards standing straight up in the air, still vibrating. She didn’t see the handbag – the only insignia she had to identify herself as Simone. She looked all the way across the floor in all directions, but no black shadow sat in the tiled glare of the vast train station.
She went over to a newsstand and asked the gentleman sitting inside the kiosk box if he’d seen the bag.
“No, but you looked pretty funny going down. You all right?” The man chewed listlessly on an unlit cigar.
She turned around. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes.
Then she saw it.
Directly underneath the clock an ornament of carved stone protruded from the wall, a stern and majestic eagle staring silently at the people below. Hanging from the eagle’s beak was a black leather handbag.
“Ruined. Ruined.” She formed the words with her mouth rather than said them. Clarence was lost to her. Margaret’s shoulders shifted just a little lower.
Suddenly her eyes widened. “I’ve got to get that bag!” she said.
She scurried across the train station to a rear set of doors marked with a small cinema light saying “stairs.” The leather soles of her shoes clapped against the tiled floor and caused her to slide a bit on turns. She took the stairs two at a time, the tails of her brown coat trailing behind.
When she reached the mezzanine landing, she could see the back of the giant clock. She went over to the edge and looked down at the eagle and its precious mouthful. The way the light shone in from the great glass doors in front, she saw the black outline of the bird reflected in the tile.
Before she really thought about it, she stepped over the railing onto the ledge below. It was only one flight up – how bad could it be? She immediately wished she had left her shoes behind as they tended to slide along on the polished marble. As soon as she reached the eagle, though, she’d be all right; it was made out of rougher textured rock.
She got to the place where the eagle grew out of the column and reached down and put her hands on its back. Very slowly, keeping her feet firmly planted against the ledge, she worked her hands out along the giant bird. By extending just a little bit at a time, she was able to keep pressure against her feet and prevent herself from sliding off.
Hand over hand with the knees unbending a little bit at a time, Margaret advanced toward the bag. She brought herself close enough to the bag to touch it with her fingertips. Only a little further.
“Simone!” A call filled the air.
Margaret stiffened and nearly fell. She held onto the eagle’s neck for support. Without moving her body, Margaret tilted her head and looked directly below her. She saw a man come running up to a woman. They both stopped directly below Margaret, and, from where she was perched, they couldn’t have been much more than ten feet away. They were too wrapped up in themselves to notice her.
“Yes?” the woman said, questioningly.
“Simone. It’s me. Clarence.”
“Clarence?” the woman said hesitantly, apparently undecided about whether to continue on. Something held her.
“Simone, it’s so good to see you. You don’t know how I’ve waited. Come on. I owe you that lunch.”
The woman seemed uncertain for a moment, then her eyes lit up and she said, “Clarence! Whatever are you doing here?”
“I’m here to find you,” he said.
Simone paused in puzzlement. Then she gushed, “You know, you’re quite a handsome man.” An easy smile revealed bright teeth. “How did you know me?”
Clarence then stepped up to the woman and took her hand neatly in his. “I’d recognize you anywhere,” he said. “You look as beautiful as I’d imagined!”
“Thank you. It’ll have to be a quick lunch, though – I have a train to catch.”
That’s when Margaret recognized the woman. When she did, her mouth opened a little, her jaw hung slack. It was Dorothy who lived just down the street from her. Margaret hadn’t seen Dorothy in ages – she was looking quite elegant. They had become friends once, for a spell, but Dorothy traveled here and there selling for some cosmetics industry – and Dorothy caught men’s eyes. They hadn’t stayed friends.
On her shoulder, Dorothy carried a black handbag with a silver buckle.Margaret sighed. She leaned her own head against the head of the great bird. She watched as the tops of the two heads disappeared under the overhang below her.
Margaret wanted to yell after them, “Oh Clarence, that’s not Simone, either!”
But she didn’t.
A small boy pointed up at her and laughed as she crawled gracelessly back onto the landing. No one else noticed.
Later that evening, she tore Clarence’s letters into tiny bits and buried them in the garden. He had not been fit for a fine woman, after all.
About Scott B. Roat:
Scott B. Roat has built a tower on the stunning California north coast in which he writes amongst the redwoods. He is an award-winning real estate broker who previously majored with a Bachelor of Arts degree in literature. Having travelled extensively, he is accomplished in several languages.