Wednesday, June 30, 1999

Work in Progress

Sometimes Tessa actually forgets that she's almost seventy until she catches a glimpse of at herself in a mirror and thinks, Where did that little old lady come from?  She's joking; it really doesn't bother her -- her age, that is.  It's just that it all went so fast!  The blink of an eye, she thinks.  You blink once and forty-five years have flown by. 

"In two days it'll be our forty-fifth," she tells Bill.  "Did you remember?"

"Of course!" he says.  "And your mother said it wouldn't last!" 

"I don't think she actually said that," she says.

"But she thought it."

"Well, I'll admit that she wasn't all that crazy about you at first." Tessa smiles.  "But she came around.  Everyone, sooner or later, always does."

"Does what?" Bill asks.

"Succumbs to your charm."

She knows he likes hearing that, and it's her pleasure to pump his ego.  Poor dear balding darling!  They do tend to argue a bit, she and Bill, but the litany they often recite between them these days is how good their life together has been. When Tessa tries to image what her life would be like if he died first, the idea weighs so heavily in her chest that she has to gasp for breath.

"Are you going to be home today at lunch-time?"  Bill says.

"Why do you ask?"

"What do you mean, why do I ask?  It seems to me that 'yes' or 'no' is all that is required.  You make a epic novel out of everything!"

"I just wondered if there was some reason you needed me to be here at noon today, that's all, Grouch!"

"If I had had some reason, I would have said so.  All I ask from you is a simple answer!"

"I don't give simple answers!" she says.  

"Don't I know it!"  

"I never did.  It's part of the baggage I brought with me.  No one in my family ever gave simple answers!  Except maybe my dad.  But then, he was so much like you are.  I guess that's what first attracted me to you.  Only, I didn't realize it at the time."

"Okay, so, will you?"

"Will I what?"

"Be here at lunch time?"

"No, I'm meeting Joan and Rachel at Atria's Restaurant in Mt. Lebanon."

"Okay," he said.  "Then I won't bother stopping in before my afternoon sessions at the office."  He hugged her.  "No use coming home if you're not here."

"See?" she said in triumph, you did have a reason for asking!"

"I give up," he said.

Later, driving to the south end of the city to meet her friends, Tessa's mind wanders back to the ugly old triangular-shaped building that was their first home.  We loved those three cramped little rooms, she thinks.  To us they were heaven.  As a matter of fact, they were close to it, being on the fourth floor.  There was no elevator, but we didn't expect conveniences -- not at sixty dollars a month, which was reasonable even by 1955 standards.  She smiles, remembering.


Sarah wasn't the problem.  The problem was the bedroom's dimensions.  The only way they could fit her crib in the room was to wedge it right up to their double bed and shove the bed against the opposite wall.  That meant they had to step up onto the bed, walk across it, and climb down on the other side, just to reach the door.  But beautiful little Sarah, with her headful of black ringlets where most three-week-olds had only peach fuzz, was worth it.   She was their first-born.  

In those days, there wasn't much done about birth control, at least among Catholics, and although Tessa wanted children very much, with Bill still in school, she worried about having to quit her job.  Maternity leave was still many decades in the future, and working mothers of new-borns were a rarity more censured than pitied.  Still, they managed.  Bill, in his last year of medical school under the G-I Bill, was receiving a small living allowance from the government, and before their marriage, Tessa had squirrled away over three-thousand dollars in the bank. Bill also worked three nights a week while finishing up his last year of Medical School, and by the time Sarah was six months old, he had graduated and took an internship that paid seventy-five dollars a month.  Later, out of the goodness of its heart, the hospital raised it to a hundred. 

The whole first four months of their marriage, Tessa had worried that she might not be capable of having children.  

"I'm scared, Bill," Tessa said.

"Scared of what?"   

"That I won't do right by her," she said.  She's so little and so precious, and sometimes I feel like I'm not even grown up yet myself."

"You'll do just fine, Tessa," he said.  "I guess most new mothers might feel that way.For godsakes, Tessa, you're almost twenty-three!  You fret about everything!  You're not happy unless you have something to worry about.  You fester and fester until you find something!"

He was always analyzing her!  Medical students think they know it all!  All through her pregnancy he had analyzed.  Everytime she wanted a little attention, he said that all pregnant woman act that way.  No matter what she did, he nodded like a sage and told her it was normal for a prima-gravida.  Everything was so damn perfectly normal!  He told her a million times the whole birth thing was a natural, everyday thing.  Well, sure, for him it was!  She wondered what she had ever seen in him anyway.  Almost immediately she was sorry for the thought.

"Oh, Bill, I wish I could be calm about things the way you are!  Will you give her her bath again this evening when she wakes up?"

"No.  You have to start doing that."

"Please, Bill.  Suppose I drop her?  You're so experienced and all."

"You won't drop her!  Gee whiz, Tessa, grow up!  Oh, okay, I'll bathe her tonight, but don't you think you start taking full charge?  What will you do when I fly to Toledo next Friday for my internship interview?  I'll be gone all weekend, you know."

She groaned.  "Oh, I forgot!  That means I'll be alone with her!  I'll just have to move in with my folks until you get back."  She relaxed a little, visualizing how, calm and capable, her mother would take over.  

Requiem For Gilbert

[Revised from a piece I wrote  in 1966]

My Last Duchess

  That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,

                                                         Looking as if she were alive.  ...................

                                                                                                            Robert Browning

Gilbert has passed away.  We had been married for almost forty years.  After that long a time, it was like losing an arm or leg -- a diseased arm or leg, perhaps, but still an extension of one's own self...a terrible loss.  Oh, but I do have my memories.  No one can take those from me.  What would one do without one's memories to sustain one?  My consolation is that he had absolutely no inkling that he was going to die until the very end.  I, on the other hand, had a premonition early on, and the idea grew, nurtured by his increasingly disturbed behavior.  More than six months before his death, I had already resigned myself to it, but kept the secret locked in my heart.

How ironic that all our married life before this, I took it for granted that I would be the first to go.  He was so robust and I, insulin dependent for years, so fragile.  Still and all, I survived my surgery without too much difficulty -- the nose job I had right after I turned forty-five.  Gilbert thought it was ridiculously vain of me, but we had come into some money from his father, and I had had about all I could stand of it, -- my nose, that is.  It had looked like a large spatula.  Gilbert used to tease me mercilessly about it.

"What do you think, Nose?" he would ask me, and then to our friends, "I value her opinion because the Nose knows."  I  would chide him in private for his lack of sensitivity, but he did the same thing time after time.

Well, the operation made a marvelous improvement in my life, to say nothing of my face, but Gilbert was not at all pleased.  Now Niles Ridgeway, he thought I looked wonderful.  As a matter of fact, so did I...or do...but perhaps I should not be the one to say so.

"Angela," Niles would say, "what's a living doll like you doing married to a clump like Gilbert?"  I thought "clump" was a humorous description, although "jealous clump" would have been more accurate, since it was right after my operation that Gilbert's jealousy first showed itself.

About that time, too, Gilbert took to drinking -- I mean drinking seriously.  Our friends knew he took a nip or two now and then, but what they didn't know was that quite often he became roaring drunk.   Within a year, his addiction had progressed to the point of making my life miserable.  He hurled all sorts of foul epitaphs at me, casting aspersion of the vilest sort on my morals -- which was silly of him, really, because Niles and his wife had already moved away by then, and I hadn't even met Wilson yet.

Wilson was such a dear to me.  I don't know what I would have done without his shoulder to cry on during those trying months.  The benefit of his shoulder was short-lived, however, because one summer evening Gilbert came home in one of his drunken states and found us together.  We weren't doing anything, really, -- just talking.  Maybe we kissed a little, but just a little. 

Well, Gilbert grabbed Wilson by the neck and banged his head against the porch post, screaming, "You lousy bastard!  You stay away from my wife!  Stay away from that whore, you hear me?"

Not only did Wilson hear him, but I'm afraid the rest of the neighborhood must have, too.  I thank heaven that Rita, his wife, was visiting her mother in Duluth.  It was all so embarrassing.  And to add to my woes, Wilson turned out to be somewhat of a coward, for almost immediately thereafter our friendship dwindled.  But I mustn't let myself degenerate into the type of woman who reminisces on and on about things of little interest to anyone but herself.

As I say, though, no one but me knew the real extent of Gilbert's drinking.  I put up with it and never complained to a soul.  I'm a very loyal sort, and I feel strongly that once a woman has taken on her husband's name, she should do everything in her power to keep that name unbesmirched in the eyes of the world.  I rather pride myself in this.  No, I never mentioned a word of it.  Except to Walter, of course, and then only within the last year or so, as Gilbert became steadily worse.  Walter is married to Minnie, my next-door neighbor.  We understand each other.  Walter, that is, not Minnie.  Minnie is an insipid, canasta-playing moron.  Ah, but Walter is....well, Walter is the very soul of kindness.  One must have someone to lean upon in one's hour of need.  In Gilbert's last year, I leaned on Walter.

I remember well the evening Gilbert found I had slipped over to Walter's.  You see, Gilbert watched me like a hawk.  It wasn't so bad when he was still working, but after he retired, just a little over fourteen months ago, he made spying on me his whole life.  Poor thing, it saddens me to put it that way, when such a short time of life was destined to be left for him.  But of course, he didn't know that then.  He had always, since my operation, made my whereabouts his business, but that last year, it was almost unbearable.  He followed me everywhere, like a little puppy dog.  He even insisted upon coming marketing with me, for fear, I was sure, that I would take up with someone.  At times, I thought I'd scream for want of privacy.  All of which makes my loss that much more poignant, don't you see?  Does one become easily accustomed to the absence of one's shadow?  Well, Minnie was meeting elsewhere with her canasta group that particular evening, and Gilbert, or so I thought, was under the influence enough for me to run next door for an hour or so undetected.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned, Gilbert found out and came over for me, behaving like a true madman.  There followed then another of his wild tantrums.  He not only bandied Walter's and my name about, but implicated me with two or three others, whom I wouldn't have looked at twice if they were the last men on earth.  It infuriated him that I didn't give his accusations the dignity of so much as a denial, but merely let a slight smile play upon my lips.

He pushed his fist in front of my face then, and shouted, "So help me, if I ever catch you at it again...."

I said, "Oh, Gilbert, honestly!"

"I mean it!" he said.  "I'll smash your nose!  I'll make it worse than before!"

I didn't let on how this upset me, but I thought of the money and pain I had put into my nose and how the surgery had changed my whole outlook on me and my life, and I knew then that he was unsettled beyond repair.

Oh, but I fear I'm getting boring with my reminiscing.  It's all still so fresh, though.  Sometimes I go around the house and imagine I hear him sniveling.  I used to try to analyze it -- his snivel -- in an effort to find why it irritated me so.  A sniffle is one thing, annoying enough in itself, but a snivel is quite another.  Gilbert's was definitely a snivel.  Before his retirement, I had to contend with it only on evenings and Saturdays and Sundays.  The past year, though, it drove me fair out of my mind.

"Gilbert," I would say, as sweetly as I knew how, especially so when I began to realize how little time he had left, "please do stop that infernal thing!"
"What infernal thing?" he would ask.

And of course, there I was.  If I answered, "Your infernal sniveling," he would return with "What infernal sniveling?", and so it would go -- on and on.

At Walter's kind suggestion, I placed boxes of tissues strategically all over the house, but to no avail.  A snivel, unfortunately, is not a physical thing that can be cured by blowing.  Well, the poor soul is gone now, and with him, the habit.  Strange, how good can come from the saddest of things.

Gilbert had retired the first of April last year.  Now here it is June, and he's gone already.  So often it happens that way.  A man retires in perfect health, and less than two years later, he's dead.  Tragically ironic, isn't it?

Gilbert's death, although I could see it coming, was actually sudden when one comes right down to it.  Truthfully, I can't put my finger on exactly what precipitated it.  I do remember, however, that he had been drinking the night before, and that he looked, -- how shall I say? -- revolting that morning, asleep with his mouth open, a gray stubble of beard covering his, -- I must admit -- ugly face.  We had had words before bed...cruel words.  He had threatened me with nose-smashing again.  All this went through my mind as I looked at him.  I began to dress as quietly as possible, hoping to slip off to the market without him for once.  

One of the first things I do after getting dressed in the morning is to give myself an insulin injection, so that it isn't forgotten in the course of my busy day.  I did so that morning, plunging the needle into my upper arm.  It takes but a moment.  I happened to glance over at Gilbert, and for some fortuitous reason, like a jigsaw puzzle, things suddenly fell into place.  With the needle still in hand, I thought, why not?  By the time I had refilled the syringe and advanced toward him, he must have, as I mentioned earlier, sensed something.  He awoke.  I smiled my loveliest smile, for I wanted him to remember me throughout eternity that way.  I swabbed his arm with the same cotton I had used on my own.

He lay frozen to his pillow.  "What are you doing?" he asked.

"Just some insulin, Gilbert," I said.  "Enough to kill a horse, but you'll hardly feel it.  You'll convulse a bit, go into shock, possibly even suffer a heart attack.  The best of it is that there will be no evidence of foul play.  Your convulsions will use up the excess insulin, and this little old prick-mark won't even be noticed."

He began to thrash around then somewhat.  "But please keep your arm still," I said, with all the gentleness I could muster.  "We wouldn't want to hurt you and leave a nasty bruise on the corpse now, would we?"

He looked up at me, and I was surprised how much he really does, ... that is, did... resemble a puppy.  For the first time that I ever remember, he became affectionate.  "Sweetheart!" he said.  He hadn't called me that since before we were married.  "You can't be serious!  You wouldn't!  Oh, I never meant all those things I said!  I love know that!"

By this time I had already removed the needle from his arm.  "Just lie still, Gilbert," I said, "and please stop sniveling.  Your convulsions won't begin for a few minutes, perhaps as many as ten."

"My God!  Isn't there anything can be done?"

"Oh, yes, Gilbert...several things, but I'm not going to do any of them.  I could have you ingest sugar, for instance, or any food, preferably carbohydrates, to counteract..."

He tried to get up, but I pushed him down and sat on him to keep him there.  "Please try to remain calm, Gilbert," I begged.  "It's probably too late to do anything by now anyway."

He began to whimper and promised me all the reforms he would make if only I'd try to do something to save him.  I looked at my watch, and let him blubber on for several minutes.  At last, he began to twitch and quiver, and because of my sensitive nature, I couldn't remain there any longer to witness it.

"I'm going marketing now," I said, standing up and straightening my skirt.  "Good-by, Gilbert.  By the time I return, you should be quite dead."

As it turned out, I was exactly right.

Tuesday, June 15, 1999

Early Morning Walk

Trees, dark silhouettes
outlined in daylight's first thrust,
take shape. Turn greener.

Birds' wake-up songs
start softly. Crescendo to fullest dawn.
Then taper.

Sun's ball inches
over the horizon. Glows red.
Paints the eastern sky.

Now here, now there,
lights come on, doors open. Footfalls echo
on sidewalks.

Traffic noises jar.
Car horns, school buses. Children shout
to one another.

Daily bustle reigns,
reinvented at every sunrise.
I walk on.

Dawn / L'Alba

             DAWN                                                                L'ALBA

The sun                                                              Il sole

colors the break of day, redefining                     dipinge la spunta del giorno, misurando

the world.                                                           il mondo.

Birds' chatter                                                      Cantano gl'uccelli

crescendos measure for measure                        piu in piu in alto, secondo come cresce

as dawn brightens.                                              l'illuminazione aurorale.

Now here, now there,                                         Ora nelle case

lamps are turned on; doors open,                        s'accendano le luci, e dalle porte viene fuori

spilling people.                                                    una folla.

Chaos,                                                                Il caos,

reinvented with each sunrise,                             inventato matina per matina,

is born anew.                   nasce di nuovo.

Tuesday, June 8, 1999

Beyond the Garden Gate

Gatekeeper, good gatekeeper,
Ghastly boredom goads me
Go beyond this garden gate.
Glorious diversion is my longing,
Gamboling beyond this gate my goal.
Galled is my soul for want of gaiety
Garnered to buffer me, to
Guard against ennui.

Gatekeeper, good gatekeeper,
Give it to me true. If I should
Grab the gauntlet and play life's
Golden game, think you I may yet be
Gagged with monotony all the same?
Gadding free if so I be, will
Glee, elusive glee, refuse to
Gain on me?

Gatekeeper, good gatekeeper,
Give me your wisdom, do. Should I
Gamble, or gallantly let the world go by?
Go search my dream or stay right here,
Going through dullness 'til I die?
Great and gifted guru, oh please try.
Guess what you yourself would do,
Given you were I.

Wednesday, June 2, 1999

The Tramplers

Henry looked in the mirror.  

I did it again, didn't I?

"Yup!  I'm afraid you did it again, Henry."

Made a fool of myself?

"A-huh!  A damn fool."

Bertha called to him from the hall.  "I don't hear any water running, Stupid." she said.  "Hurry the hell up and get out of there.  I want to get to sleep sometime tonight, you know!  Geez!  That's what I get for allowing you in first!"  

Henry ran water in the tub and then turned back to the mirror.

I hate her!

"So, what else is new?"  It was grinning.

Henry shivered.  Please stop.  I don't like your smile. 

How old had he been the first time -- seven? -- eight?  No, it was even before that.  "It's the devil looking back at you, sissy!"  his mother had said.  Nice thing to tell a child.  "That's what you get for standing too long in front of the mirror!"  A religious woman, his mother.

My father got out of it.  He was smart.  Left for work one day and

never came back.  Almost thirty years and no word.  I half

expected him to show at her funeral.  But he didn't.  He

was smart.

"Not smart, Henry.  Too meek to stand up to her.  She ended up

with everything."

Except him.

"Him she had no use for.  Listen, Henry, it's the ruthless

who inherit the earth.  Take it from me.  The meek only

get trampled.  So guess which one you are, Henry?"

Henry trembled just like he did when Bertha humiliated him. 

What a fool I was!  I could have been free after my mother died.

"You traded one trampler for another."

Henry had to agree to that.  Oh yes, Bertha liked to humiliate him.  Very witty, that Bertha!  People enjoyed being around her.  They seemed to wait, mouths hanging open, ready to laugh at her next words.  "Allow me the honor of presenting to you my mild little Henry, my knight in shining armor!"  He knew her routine by heart.  Then they would all laugh, and he would stand there, grinning like an idiot, heart pounding, knowing what was coming next:  "Say something funny for the nice people, Henry."  Laughter.  His neck and face hot.  Red.  He could feel the color.

"When are you finally going to stand up to her, Henry?"  

It smirked and Henry's knees went wobbly.  He heard her again from the other side of the door.  "That tub's going to overflow, Stupid.  How long's it take to wash your two-cents'-worth anyway?"  Henry shut off the faucets.

She's getting mad!

"She's getting mad...she's getting mad!  You really ARE stupid,

you know that, Henry?  Why don't you just yank open that

door and march right out there and strangle the life out of her?"

Henry started to perspire.  I asked you to please be quiet about that.

Stop drumming it at me.  

He turned to the tub, and with his hand, slapped the water back and forth against the sides.  There was no time left for a bath.  She was pounding on the door now.  He released the drain and turned again to the mirror.  Its smirk was gone, its look almost sympathetic.  Henry felt like crying.

"Listen, Henry, did it really take you three days to get up

enough nerve?"

For what?

"You know full well what!  Let's see now, how does she put it?

...Consummate the marriage."

Why do you have to bring that up all the time?

"Why does she?  She said it again tonight in front of everybody,

didn't she, Henry?  And they killed themselves laughing over it,

right?  Oh, that Bertha!  She's a real scream.  Admit it, Henry.

That's why you went ahead and made an ass of yourself again,

didn't you?  Went around talking too much, fawning, trying

too hard.  What did you think you were doing?  Running for

office?  Give up, Henry!  They're her friends, not yours.  You

don't really have any friends." 

I know.

"Strangle her Henry.  Go ahead.  Go out there and choke the

life out of her!"

Stop it!  I said stop it!  Besides, she's strong.

"Fat, Henry, not strong.  Fat and soft.  It wouldn't be so

hard to do.  Tell me again, Henry, what do you feel for


I HATE her!  Henry clenched his fists.

She rattled the bathroom doorknob.   "All right, Henry.  Time's up!  Get out right now and let me in.  What are you doing all this time?  Polishing the body beautiful?  Unlock the door!  Why do you always lock it anyway?  Afraid someone will come in and spy on you?"  She made an expectorant noise in her throat.  "Who in her right mind would want to?"

Henry unclenched his hands and looked at them, turning them over and over.  He stretched his fingers, and, sighing, wrapped his robe around himself and unlocked the door.