Sunday, June 11, 2006

HOOKED

It’s Sunday at the grocery store, and I’m dancing the usual jig at the checkout, stepping up to the shortest or quickest line. The religious Jews are out in force, having postponed marketing until after their Sabbath. There are eight lines open, and a wait at each. I shuffle from one ‘any size order, any payment’ queue to another, gauging the size of the purchase, and the cashier’s efficiency. Another shopper and I both eye the same register. The line is short, so I’m surprised when she surrenders it to me instead of nosing ahead with her cart. I pull up behind the last customer.

Then I see. The older woman pushing the basket ahead of me, deep in conversation with what looks like her daughter, has no right hand. Or rather, she has a hook. She’s not hiding it inside a long sleeve or a glove. She’s waving it around, gesturing in conversation, like someone long accustomed to making her point with a wagging finger.

I draw closer. I notice the other arm. No hand on it, either. Just a second wood-and-metal contraption. It’s not just a hook; it’s a hook with a hanger. A portion of the metal loops out in a ‘u’ that looks sturdy enough to carry, well, a grocery bag.

Not that any of this seems novel to her. She’s shopping like any elegant grandmother who stopped to buy pop for a picnic. There’s a maroon designer purse hanging on the elbow of her right arm. She neatly lifts a giant pack of napkins up to the counter between her hooks—squeezing it like an accordion—and then slides the handbag off. It rests in the upper section of the cart, and she roots around inside with her hook. It looks to have 3 digits: the hook, and two pinchers. She pokes inside until she finds her quarry. Black Calvin Klein sunglasses. But instead of wearing them, she waves them about—in one hook—while talking to her daughter. They’re discussing the merchandise.

Her collar length whitish-blonde hair falls back and reveals her face. Whatever took her hands must have got her features, too. The skin is alabaster and taut; much tighter than her neck’s flesh and a slightly different shade. Her nose points up abruptly, as if an inch of bone was shaved off. Yet, she isn’t scarred. Her daughter watches her eyes; they are both matter-of-fact. Whatever caused these injuries—accident or fire—it’s old news to them.

I don’t turn away. Her complexion is smooth and unblemished, at least in the usual sense. There are no visible pores, no wrinkles. Instead, she appears burnished, like soldered metal. She doesn’t quite shine. Perhaps the skin is too tight to wrinkle, or rests differently upon the sub-dermal layers of fat, vein, muscle and blood, impervious to the imprint of smiles or frowns.

But she’s not hideous. There is something artful about her, like a robot’s dream of people. The mechanics are right. What’s wrong is so subtle, the imagination gropes to name what’s missing: follicles, the soft mist of down on a cheek.

Her clothes have a near-sheen, too—flowing violet silk slacks with a matching top; perhaps they’re en route to a celebration. In contrast, I am barely dressed, in old jeans and a stained orange shirt with mismatched socks. They’re in upbeat moods, as if it’s party time, as if nothing can spoil that. Not a detour to the store, nor loss of limb.

Above her, the hovering faces on the television monitor, positioned to sell extra toiletries and recipes, wear forced smirks.

As she checks out, she leans toward her daughter and speaks. They hold each other’s eyes, and don’t flinch. And why should they? Perhaps the mother gave birth to this 40-something daughter post-trauma; this pale glowing mask is the familiar face of love.

Next, her glasses require attention. It’s a brief struggle, but she manages both sides of her movie-star shades, and pushes them up her abbreviated nose with the backs of her hooks. She grins at the cashier and makes a joke I can’t quite overhear.

I want to will off her glasses, so I can study those eyes, too. I know it’s rude, my stare. I recall a remote Holiday Inn in Wisconsin. Famished, my husband, children and I drove across rutted roads to find the advertised dinner buffet. At the next table sat a family much like ours, except that father had prosthetic arms. It didn’t impress his children. They were as unruly as mine, giving no special notice when their father lifted a glass in his tweezer-like grasp. I watched their meal progress more keenly than ours, though my family was oblivious to the spectacle.

There was the young pitcher in Rogers Park who would stand on the mound, glove tucked under his left stump. He’d burn one across the plate with his right hand, grab the mitt, and make the catch—then tuck the glove back in his armpit, pick out the ball and begin again. At the ball game, my ill manners were forgiven. I could stare with abandon; you’re supposed to watch the pitcher.

But this is the grocery store, where we crave anonymity within the aisles of replicating boxes. I should only stare at the packaging, the monitor, the checkout ad for the weekly special.

The cashier laughs as the mother and daughter wheel away. I unload my cart and glance back at the crowd of frowns: impatient grimaces, crying toddlers, knitted brows. I turn back to the
clerk. I can’t catch her comment through her thick, Indian accent. I don’t try. I don’t want to be in this line. I want to tail the mother and daughter out to their car and see who drives. I want to watch her open doors, adjust the radio, buckle her seatbelt, caress her daughter’s brow with those metal claws—to answer with every motion the inevitable question: how does she, how would I, how do any of us cope?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

GRIEVING

Kathy has told me this story before. This time, we are in a car, driving into Charleston, South Carolina. The five old college roommates, leaving Kiawah Island at the end of a long weekend. Squeezing every last minute of intimacy out of the trip.

She leans forward from the back seat so Julie, who is driving, can hear. Julie is no stranger to tragedy, awaiting her pre-teen daughter’s heart surgery, crossing her fingers the doctor will cure, not kill her. Linda, sitting beside me, has a temporary reprieve. Her ovarian cancer won’t return for four months. Caren, riding shotgun, is healthy. It’s her marriage that’s fallen apart.

Two of us are missing, too. One dead; one in a cult and only dead to the world. But we’re not thinking about them now. We’re on vacation from personal disaster while Kathy tells her tale.

It was years ago, when Kathy and her husband Gregg were camping in Alaska, in Denali National Park. One day, while hiking, other campers stopped them on the trail. Had they seen a moose? Or a bear? Kathy and Gregg hadn’t seen the moose, but kept a lookout. And then, they stumbled across the bear. He was lurking around the edges of the cul de sac where they were camped, blood staining the fur around his mouth.

They weren’t sure what had happened. Had someone said that the moose had a baby? Babies? Or was about to give birth? But what had they said about the bear?

While they debated, the moose lumbered up, bigger and more imposing than they expected. Her earth-pounding steps sent Kathy jumping into the trailer, and Gregg scurrying up the ladder to its roof. As the moose swung around her head, it seemed clear—she was on the hunt for her babes.

So began a dance, for hours. Drawn by some invisible force—the smell of blood? Anguished cries?—the moose ran at the woods, then around the circle at the end of the cul de sac. She’d head toward the grizzly’s lair, then retreat to the campsite, ears pricked up and listening, fur on her back at attention, watching and waiting, and waiting and watching.

But the rangers knew she wouldn’t find her babies alive; the bear had eaten them.

The rangers caucused, decided it was a dangerous situation. Elevated from orange to red, like a homeland security alert. Bears aren’t the only aggressive beasts, Kathy explains. Moose charge, too. Campers could get hurt.

The rangers reached into their cab for weapons. They cocked their guns, as wary of the moose as scared of the bear. The men trekked into the woods on a mission to subdue the grizzly while the moose was at the campsite. All the while, the mother moose kept her anxious vigil: scooting toward the trees, then back to the center of the clearing, eyes and ears alert, hair a-prickle.

Just a short time passed, and then the rangers lugged them out―the two dead baby moose. They threw the corpses into the back of their pickup like slabs of ruined meat while the mother moose watched. At once, her demeanor changed. Her pelt fell flat, her ears drooped. She stopped roaming and stood stock still in the center of the campsite. Motionless, for a good hour. She was frozen, expressionless.

Back in Charleston, Kathy drops her arms and rolls back her eyes, her best imitation of a stunned mother moose. We don’t laugh.

She says that’s how it went the next day, too. Kathy and Gregg woke to find the moose unmoved. In mourning. Too grief-stricken to leave the scene of the murder.

Kathy falls back in her seat. She looks around the car for a word to express the moose’s sorrow. She gives up, resorts to a phrase out of our shared past.

“Well,” she says, “that moose, she was totally bummed out.”

There are no bleak-enough words for that kind of despair.

We ride in hushed assent, staring at the maze of roadways in the distance. We can’t see the potholes and collisions that will rattle our lives in the miles ahead.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

WITHOUT EVA

Just weeks ago, Eva died. I always liked her, but didn’t know her well. I learned the personal details of her life incidentally and accidentally, at neighborhood gatherings.

Four years back, when her Dalmatian Prince was still alive, she threw a birthday party in her yard for the deaf old dog, complete with paper hats and cake. She invited both people and pets, but I didn’t dare bring Porter, my black lab, for fear of him humping the hostess. I don’t remember any animals save Prince and a stray cat. It was a pet-less pleasure to relax on Eva and Albert’s lawn furniture and visit.

My son was considering college then, and she warned me off of Kalamazoo, saying it ‘ruined’ her boy. He took up with the wrong crowd, and ended up modeling in New York City. Was this her code for coming out as gay? I didn’t ask. The bunch of us moved on to stories about 9/11. She and Albert both had grown children in New York, from first marriages, who’d found their spouses via cell-phone after the towers fell. Our neighbor Susan Chiaro’s father flew into Boston just as planes were grounded. Upon landing, his cabbie was weeping: the honey-mooning couple he’d dropped off that morning had boarded a doomed flight.

The usual things changed in the ensuing years. Susan moved to Madison. Prince died. I’d spy Eva power-walking when I took Porter out. Her cropped blond locks bobbed along at a brisk pace and I’d admire her lithe limbs and upbeat mood, hoping to be like her when I reached her age. Though she was but a few years ahead of me, and I kept overtaking the ages I envied, I never closed the muscular gap between her taut shape and my own softer figure.

Sometimes we’d say hello in passing, other times exchange more words. She’d mourn the lack of “a dog to pee on my flowers” and indulge Porter’s leaping greeting. Over those years, Albert began and finished an immense project in their yard, bricking in walkways, planting borders and flowers, coaxing it into a magical showpiece of a garden. Over the winters, she said he sat staring out the window, sketching and planning. Summers, he’d dig and water and prune--such work you can do without a big dog to pee on and tear up your efforts.

I passed their house at least once a day, noting the neat lemony border of petunias below their living room window, and the white grand piano behind its filmy curtains. Summer and winter, petunias or snow, a vase full of flowers, often roses, would sit atop the piano: red punctuating ivory. I never thought to ask about the piano, who might have played, whether it was Eva or Albert, or one of their children, up and gone.

Somewhere in that interval of years, we sought each other out at a neighbor’s baby shower, though our talk soon turned grim for the occasion. Eva was recently back from Poland, where her mother had died. In the hospital, when they visited, her mother’s breasts had turned black, something she’d never heard of before, nor had I.

Time advanced. Eva walked; I walked Porter. This winter, I didn’t see Eva, but didn’t wonder. There’s not much pleasure strolling hereabouts in the subzero months.

Then, in April, I heard she was dead. Diagnosed, suddenly, with gall bladder cancer. Cramps and projectile vomiting, surgery. A quick three months from discovery to death.

It’s hard to grasp an absence when someone dies who you don’t see daily. But I’ve heard a change. These days, when Porter and I pass her window at night, we’re often startled by haunting piano melodies. It’s Albert at the keys, performing concertos as lush and lovely as his garden, with Porter, the roses and me his only audience.

I never remembered to ask Eva who played piano. I know now; the music has answered.