Saturday, March 20, 2010

Water and Stone by Madama Sebastian

Steve folded in on himself and cried. There were a whole lot of rules getting broken just by doing that sitting at his desk, but regular Steve wasn’t in charge of this event, not this time.

None of his coworkers really knew what to do. Steve was always the guy with the rigid issues about personal space, physical and otherwise. He never cracked jokes or offered stories about his weekends. Most of the office had no idea if Steve was married or single or straight or gay or what. He just showed up and did what he did pretty well and went home. Some of the more social beings tried a few times to get him to go out after work, but consistent, polite rejections made sure it didn’t take long before they quit asking. Right now, seeing Mr. Don’t-Rock-My-Boat have a moment was a moment in itself.

Denial would have worked pretty well as a collective remedy to this office convulsion had Steve’s sobs not reached a new depth that got harder to ignore. Somebody finally went to the boss to tell. In a few carefully calculated moments, the boss came out. “Anything wrong…uh..Steve?”

Regular Steve might have said “Yes, but its personal” and that would have absolved everybody from everything. In truth, this situation could never have happened because regular Steve would never have cried at his desk, at the water cooler or even alone in his car at the lowest, darkest spot of the parking garage. This other guy, who looked like a deflated twin brother, had nothing to say that fell outside body language. No words at all, just tears.

The boss broke briefly through Steve’s fourth wall to pat his shoulder. “Well, I hope whatever it is, that everything turns out okay,” and knowing that Steve wouldn’t ask, he added, “ If you need anything, just ask.” Couldn’t get more PC than that! It covered every base—disease, death, stress, heartbreak-- the works. Just the right generic sincerity, too. Having moved the employee relations needle, the boss went away to wherever bosses go to make more money than Steve.

Steve had enough control over his own commotion now to reduce some of the volume but not the leaks. Mortification set in when he realized he had started to sound like a small child pulling his cries inside to appease an exasperated adult—huffing air into his chest in short, backward and far too noisy leaps.

Around the same cubicle wall that Steve used as fortification until the last 15 minutes of his life, came a hand and a glass. “Here’s some water.” Steve took it because he needed it and because it worked. He felt the sobs smooth out until it seemed like he could think again. When he turned to deliver a thank you, the hand had already disappeared. No empathetic face. No inquisition. Just hand, water, gone.

Grief or no grief, this was a loose end that had not been tied up and the whole secret to regular Steve’s long standing record of reticence was making sure those ends had big, tight knots. Unused “thank you’s” had to be spoken or else Steve would owe somebody. Even this Steve, who could have probably used a human touch now more than anyone in the entire city, couldn’t let a take go without a give. He rubbernecked around the cubicle wall. Nobody home. Nobody in evidence of being home, either. No kids’ pictures, cute calendars or doodles. Empty.

Steve tried to back track. Was it a man’s voice? A woman’s hand? Perfume? A sleeve? He 3-60-ed the office. Nobody’s eyes dared meet his for fear of accidentally setting off some uneasy spout of male tears. Steve’s water giver was out there. It could have been any one of them. Steve didn’t know, wouldn’t guess and couldn’t ask. He had become an un-reciprocating taker, which didn’t completely eliminate the ten foot pole Steve carried around. It just sort of snapped it in half.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Elizabeth Christopher by Madama Sebastian

Bessie Christopher wasn’t rich, married or young when I met her, even though my mother said she had once been all three. My mother also said that Bessie went quiet and crazy after her husband died in the same war my dad lived through. It seemed to me that 30 years was an awful long time to be either one.

Happy with her long ago past, Bessie was reminded by widowhood and infirmity that she no longer lived in it, so she dedicated proof of better times to the walls of her home. In every room, she had photographs of good looking Teddy Christopher, her Greek restaurant entrepreneur. As a kid, I didn’t find Teddy nearly as fascinating as the garden in which he was buried…on Bessie’s wallpaper.

Bessie’s walls told that she was equally wild for her husband, flowers and the color blue. Each Mid-Atlantic summer, her front yard swayed with old fashioned posies. In the off season, the interior walls, papered with immense hydrangeas, made up for what the garden couldn’t grow. Teddy’s photographs withered black and white against generous sapphire.

It was no wonder that Teddy’s best pictures seemed coziest on Bessie’s pedestal table. Everybody had one of those tables--tall, single pillared wood and high polish, the kind of table that you would never profane with foolishness. My parents had JFK and Pope John Paul II sharing a tatted memorial doily on their pedestal table which led to a fair childhood assumption that the only people who got displayed were 1) dead and preferably 2) martyred. I had no idea how qualified he was, but in Bessie’s house, Teddy got a doily all to himself.

Bessie’s tiny home, where she had been without Teddy for so long, sat at the back of her property. All her neighbors’ homes perched at the front of theirs, making it seem like Bessie’s house was shy or too good to mingle. It wasn’t true. She liked being away from the noisy street and having a private view of the perennials first set down in the earth by the man who only ever called her Elizabeth, but Bessie and the house were as warm and welcoming as any I’d ever visited.

Her last long decades were spent alone. Bessie ambled room to room, a little more slowly each year, looking out windows that all faced the garden. She could often be found in a soft covered rocker on the back porch…thanking her beloved out loud for leaving behind the blooms of blue and wishing in her crazy quiet that he was there, so she could still have all the things she was wild about…….

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lessons Un-Remembered by Madama Sebastian

A mind can be a messy attic that doesn’t take kindly to cleaning. Yard sale thoughts are jammed in the same memory box with fine antiques. The lyrics of every nonsense song since 1964 are crystal stamps in my mind, but conjure and concentrate as I might, I cannot recall the sound of my grandmother’s voice.

And what is the use of half a memory? Almost hearing her voice, thin and far, coming and going is a tug of war with a cobweb that has become more ragged with each pull. If I am only halfway to remembering, then why not just let me forget?

Apparently the mind is an autocrat who doesn’t like being a storehouse of mostly ignored things. When we try to extract something, the mind often shoves the memory of stink ahead of perfume. It may splatter us with multiple memories, altering the speed at which we remember them. Those remembrances we had hoped would linger, fizzle. Tormenting thoughts we wish would pass quickly, stay unbearably long.

I may not be able to hear my grandmother’s voice, but I am still a child of her child and I know my grandmother was more wise than clever. She didn’t need me to remember her voice. If she did, she would have found a way for me to do it. My grandmother knew the tricks of the monkey mind.

Her version of a life lesson was the imprint of experience. Other than safety precautions, my grandmother generally dispensed with excessive words, especially instructions, and offered her buffet of wisdom disguised as fun.

Much to my mother’s horror and maybe in spite of it, my grandmother often served me tea and toast for breakfast because she knew I liked the taste of the buttered bread after I dunked it. She watch me hour after patient hour, dragging around in her old Roaring 20s high heels. She’d upend an old silk lined suitcase from a back shelf and fill my afternoons with elbow length gloves, gobs of brooches, screw back earrings and hats with veils. In the evenings, she soft brushed my busy, tangled hair and would send me to sleep with the most gentle and marvelous scuffing of her fingertips across the inside of my arm.

What she gave me were not so many words to remember her by. Instead, she offered me, both lovingly and willingly, the ability to know my own senses. That, she knew, is a doing, not a remembering.