Guest Post, Once Upon a Time, Recall

Laura Esther Wolfson

“All of my stories are true, but this one really happened.”

Anonymous

 

Laura Ester Wolfson bio pictureI’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the dementia ward of late. To get to where I’m going, I pass through the large common room, where some two dozen men and women sit at long tables, all alone, every single one of them, many slumped over, foreheads nearly grazing the formica. The sight makes me marvel at humans’ capacity to curve inward, forming thereby something infinite.

High up on the wall, images flicker. Something mid-century is playing on mute, starring a woman with broad shoulders and marcelled hair who is bantering, apparently, with some square-jawed man of few words. They’re in a dim, cramped office, playing at being reporters, probably, or maybe he’s a hard-boiled private investigator and she’s his glamorous, distraught client. They wave their cigarettes around. It is a scene—smoking indoors, for heaven’s sake—that is now the purest fiction.

In the room, a man points at me and says, “Hey, look, a muchacha!”

“A girl!” he then explains, though no one is paying attention. (I’m past 50, but if a man likes muchachas, he will see them everywhere.)

In the corner, a woman, her head crowned with white braids, calls out over and over, “Pomogeetye!” which is Russian for “Help!”

My knowledge of languages, which got me hired as a translator at a large international organization, is useful in this place, too. Each time I hear the woman with the braided crown—which is often, because she’s always calling out, every single time I come here, her powers of speech worn down to this nub of a single word that succinctly expresses all she has left to say—I think that I should go over and address her in her language, which I also speak, briefly breaking her isolation, or joining her in it. I see no sign that there is anyone else on the ward, resident, staff or visitor, who could do that.

 

I think now of a character in Un roman russe by Emmanuel Carrère. (In the English edition, three words have been added at the beginning of the title for some reason, expanding it to My Life is a Russian Novel.) The story is a true one, so the character is a person as well as a character, but the French are nonchalant about the non/fiction distinction, and so in France, Carrère is a novelist.

I don’t have the book at hand, and it’s been a while, so I’ll just recount it as I recall it. Feel free to fact-check, should the urge strike.

As World War II is coming to a close, a Hungarian prisoner of war washes up in a remote Soviet town. Because he speaks a language that no one in the vicinity can identify, let alone understand, and the townspeople conclude, not unreasonably, that he’s speaking gibberish, it follows that he ends up in an insane asylum. Where he remains for about half a century.

And maybe he actually is a touch insane, because during all of those decades surrounded by the Russian language, completely immersed, he learns not one single word, not one single expression—not ‘hello,’ not ‘thank you’ and not even ‘fuck your mother.’

I mention ‘fuck your mother’ because it’s nearly as frequent—in Russian, I mean—as ‘hello’ and ‘thank you,’ especially in god-forsaken provincial towns soaked in vodka and despair. You will say that this cannot be true, that no Chekhov character ever says “fuck your mother,” no matter how much despair is swirling about, but the reason for this omission should be blindingly clear: Chekhov wrote fiction.

At last the error somehow emerges, and our Magyar protagonist, no longer a prisoner of war, but of something else, is returned to what remains of his family, in Buda, or Pest, or perhaps further afield. Fanfare greets the prodigal son. Through an interpreter, an official Russian delegation that has traveled to Hungary to attend the welcome-home event proffers apologies for the lost decades.

The mayor gives a speech—in Hungarian, of course, which everyone there understands, not counting the Russians. It’s remarkable what a change of scene will do; restored to his native surroundings, the man is no longer a lunatic.

 

But if reading good books is supposed to make you a bigger, better person, then in my case it has failed; in the dementia ward, I do not cast off my disguise as a monolingual person—I do not step forward to speak Russian. If I were to approach the pomogeetye lady and address a few Russian words to her, she would surely cling to me and make impossible demands—I’ve experienced this with Russians who are not in dementia wards—taking me away from my mother, who I have come to see.

 

Next, I pick my way through the jetsam piled up near the far end of the hall: a bed frame, a scale with a platform for weighing the wheelchair-bound, a stack of walkers, a few chairs, and I see now that there is a wheelchair stranded amidst the debris, and in it, a woman, who must have miscalculated the width of passage she needed to get through.

With some words intended to soothe, I pry her loose, turn her chair around and set her on another path I think should satisfy her equally well.

“Bastard!” she howls after me.

But I’m leaving the hallway now, and entering my mother’s room. Velcro screeches as I pull away the cloth barrier stretched across the doorframe. Placed there by the staff, the barrier has a big red stop sign on it, to deter those residents who have a tendency to wander.

The woman I freed from the debris is still cursing as I step inside.

 

I used to own a tattered paperback by Elie Wiesel called Legends of Our Time. Held together with a rubber band, it continually shed small scraps. The book had come to me in that state, I don’t remember how. When it became too dilapidated to keep, I relegated it to recycling, saving a single page from the introduction, a page that I sensed I would someday need.

On that page, which I keep attached to the refrigerator with a magnet, Wiesel refers to an old rabbi he’d known in the little Romanian town where they both lived, a town that was wiped off the map during World War II. Decades after the war, Wiesel, a New Yorker now, calls on the rabbi, who is ensconced in Tel Aviv. Nearly as old as time, and a man of God to boot, he is of course served up as some kind of sage.

Wiesel tells the old man that he’s become a writer.

“Is that all?” says the rabbi in reproachful disbelief.

Wiesel adds that he writes stories, true ones.

The rebbe asks, “About people you knew?”

Yes, about people he might have known.

“About things that happened?”

Yes, about things that happened or could have happened.

“But they did not?” presses the rebbe.

No, says Wiesel, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end.

“That means you’re writing lies!” says the rebbe.

Things aren’t so simple, says Wiesel. Some events do take place but are not true; others are true—although they never occurred.

 

She’s in palliative care, which is like hospice for people who aren’t dying yet. ‘Palliative care’ means they don’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to, so she gets to spend most of her time in her room, in bed, instead of at one of the formica tables by the TV, and when she’s not up to the ordeal of being put into clothes, she passes the day in a hospital gown.

She can no longer walk, or even stand. She has to be lifted into bed from the wheelchair and back again, and she sleeps almost all the time. She regularly forgets what a fork is for and that food is meant to be swallowed.

On her nightstand are a few books I brought in when she landed here, months ago: a volume of Thackeray, pages uncut, from the matched set she kept on top of her wardrobe, a spy novel about the French Resistance and a book on modern dance, with a chapter about a choreographer, largely forgotten now, who was her teacher and friend.  She doesn’t dip into the books at all.

The drawer of the nightstand is crammed with chocolate—bags, boxes and bars. The chocolates get unwrapped and popped into her mouth by whoever happens to be at her bedside at any given time.

The large window frames a stunning view of the Hudson and, on the other side, the Palisades, but she’s largely unaware. She has some vision left, but she never turns to the window—she’s always been averse to the sunlight—and she’s probably lost some ability to process shapes and colors into recognizable objects and landscapes.

In fact, when I put my face close to hers, smack in the middle of what ought to be her field of vision, I’m never sure she knows it’s me. It’s my voice she responds to, and my name.

“Hello, Ma! It’s Laura.”

Her face softens. A smile dawns.

“Hi there, baby girl,” she says to me.

 

Wiesel wrote something we call fiction, and he called it true. I write things that I remember, have seen or lived—I think. I’m not making it up, but I cannot swear that it all happened.

From opposite sides of the divide, Wiesel and I agree: stories live according to their own logic. They are ungovernable and uncategorizable, like schools of fish that sometimes unwittingly straddle international borders as they swim about, swishing their tails to and fro—to whom do they belong, those tranquil creatures of the sea? Turgid international treaties have been negotiated in the attempt to pin this down. Stories are also this way: blithely unaware, as they navigate the depths, of transgressing the boundaries that humans draw.

I am not a reporter, and I am not a chronicler, and I am not beholden to the facts, which are merely raw materials in a random heap. I am beholden to story, which is sculpted, intentional. I fashion aesthetic objects from found materials, not reports that say: here is what happened. In fact, the nature of what I write may depend on not being fact-checked. It may depend, to an extent, on the vagaries of memory, on misremembrance. The refractions of memory are part of the story.

While I do not think that my life story holds exceptional interest, I am more drawn to the lived than to the made up; more drawn to observing and shaping than to imagining and concocting; and more drawn to speaking in an authentic first person voice than in an imagined third that I myself don’t really believe.

On the one hand, an opera production with ruffled costumes, powdered wigs, abundant avoirdupois, scrims sliding on tracks at the flip of a switch, smoke machines, choruses, a corps de ballet, a pit orchestra and a plot that involves interlocking love triangles, multiple suicide pacts, cross-dressing, pilfered letters, goblets of poison and a masquerade ball followed by a duel at midnight. On the other hand, a lone chanteuse in a small circle of light surrounded by a larger circle of darkness, confiding ballads of heartbreak to a rapt room.

Oh, those made-up characters with lines of dialogue distributed among them and placed in their mouths, like coins under the tongues of dead Greeks, to pay their passage to the far shore; the creaking scenery and mechanisms of plot; the godlike omniscient third, godlike, alas, only within the confines of a single, small story—I just cannot work with these materials any more. As the world skids further and further off into the unbelievable, they are less and less convincing.

 

She never, ever talked about her life before motherhood. When I was a child, my attempts to find out about her past were efficiently shut down. I knew her as morose yet playful, and slashingly witty, so that on her lips, bile often blurred into hilarity, so long as it was not discharged in my direction. And then sometimes she was more slashing than witty (‘gasbag’ her preferred epithet for the longwinded professors who dominated my parents’ dinner parties).

She was a rigorous housekeeper, upholder of etiquette and reader of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Nabokov, Mrs. Gaskell and both Trollopes, especially Frances. She never wore makeup, only lipstick (and that on rare occasions), but she was the Imelda Marcos of sweaters. An aficionado of the afternoon nap, upon rising she would quaff a tumbler of something grapey sloshed from a jug, then tap dance nimbly about the kitchen in little canvas shoes, a shirtwaist and a striped butcher’s apron—she had studied under Martha Graham, that I had gleaned, and she was a mean dancer, no matter the style—accompanied by the drone of Huntley and Brinkley and the sizzle of onions on the stove, crooning a ditty of her own invention—“Twinkletoes,” she called it.

Of her previous life I knew only the barest outlines. Now, though, she lives more in that past, gets lost in it, stuck amidst the clutter at the far end of the hall.

She often asks now about people long dead. Where is my mother? she demands. Why can’t I talk to her? she wants to know, her voice trembling slightly.

I remind her that my maternal grandmother—who we always thought she didn’t particularly care for, so why is she calling for her now?—departed this world in 1970.

“Of course!” She slaps her forehead. “I get mixed up about who’s alive and who’s dead.”

Then, “And what about my sisters? Are they alive?”

Dead, I tell her sadly.

“They died in a car accident, didn’t they?”

They died in bed, ten years apart.

She hesitates. But her need to know is greater than her embarrassment.

“And … what year is it now?”

As I get her unstuck and set her on another path, I see that barriers have fallen; I wander into rooms previously closed to me. I ask questions. It is my first opportunity to do so. Also, my last.

 

On this particular day, we’re talking about my Aunt Bea and her boyfriend Ed, who were an item in high school, during the Great Depression. (Bea was the oldest of the three sisters, my mother the youngest by many years, and, for a long, long time now, the only one still alive.)

“He was called Ed, but his real name was Isidore,” recalls my mother.  “I mean, you can give your child a Jewish name, but does it have to be that Jewish?”

She chuckles.

“The whole family loved Ed; he charmed us all. And, oh! He and his brothers were so handsome, they could all have gone straight to Hollywood.”

“Why did Aunt Bea break up with him?”

She looks at me in astonishment. This all happened decades before I was born, but it’s clear what she’s thinking: you mean you don’t know?

“Oh, she dumped him when she met Paul.” That would be my Uncle Paul, whom Aunt Bea later married.

“And then she went back and forth between them for a while. Whenever she was on the outs with Paul, she’d take up with Ed again, and then she’d go back to Paul. She used poor Ed terribly. Oh, the sweet young men who got mixed up with my sister Bea!”

Mirth bursts out of her again.

“Ed eventually married Viola, who was the director of a puppet theater.”

I’m trying to memorize every word, but she’s going very fast. I can’t retain it all.

“And then, years later, after Ed and Viola split, Ed got pally with Esther…”

Esther was the middle sister, glamorous yet earthy, a divorcée when that was still a pretty louche thing to be. Her I do remember—this was long, long ago—waving a cigarette around: outdoors, indoors, in bed, at all hours, in the shower, her back to the spray as she reached around the curtain to where an ashtray teetered on the edge of the sink.

“Ed used to drop by and visit Esther sometimes, in her apartment. Remember that view of Lake Michigan from the balcony?”

I do remember, very well. I used to strap on my roller skates, tighten them with the key, skate to the end of the block, then let the wind off the lake push me back up the street to where the liveried doorman stood, smiling benevolently.

But I’m trying not to breathe or make a sound. Keep going, Ma, I think. Just keep going.

“And one day, Ed and Esther fell into bed!”

My mother, talking about sex?  About someone she was close to, having sex? Talking about it in a light-hearted tone? What is happening in the world?

“Afterward,” she presses forward, and it occurs to me that she’s racing to entrust the story to me before she loses it forever, “Ed came stumbling out of the bedroom, tucking in his shirttails and exclaiming,  ‘I fell in love with the wrong sister!’”

I can see Ed, whom I never actually met, gorgeous in a fortyish way. So clearly do I see Ed, in fact, that at first I think my mother must have been sitting right there in Esther’s living room when he emerged from the bedroom, bowled over by midlife sexual revelation. Otherwise, how could she tell it so vividly?

Eventually, I will realize that no, she’s simply repeating the story as she heard it from Esther. Esther would never have seduced her older sister’s old boyfriend, or anyone else, with her younger sister, or anyone else, sitting in the next room. Of course not. But she wasn’t above bragging about taking a man to bed and making his toes curl with delight, especially if said man was her big sister’s old flame and the audience for her story was her baby sister, who was by then, I’m guessing, a grown-up, married lady.

 

I rush home to broadcast the tale of Ed and Esther. Family and close friends are delighted. My father claims a vague memory of it, but no one else in the family has ever heard the story.

To think that this might have been lost. As so much is.

 

Once upon a time, before Oprah, recall, nobody got all worked up about the whole fact/fiction distinction—except maybe ancient, very literal-minded rabbis.

Take Marcel Proust, a novelist who named his first-person narrator Marcel and based the eponymous Swann on an actual art connoisseur and collector, the scion of a Jewish merchant dynasty with branches in Paris, Vienna and Odessa.

Or novelist Thomas Wolfe, largely forgotten now, except as a character in a movie starring a fearsomely miscast Nicole Kidman as his zaftig, dark-haired mistress. Wolfe changed all the names, but still he couldn’t go home again, because the folks back home were personally acquainted with and recognized the characters who peopled his books, each and every one: the alcoholic doctor; the grasping woman speculating in real estate; her semi-estranged husband the semi-crazed stonecutter, also alcoholic; the stonecutter’s stone angel; the idlers at the soda fountain; the part-time prostitutes of Niggertown, as the wrong side of the tracks was then known.

Decades ago, I knew a woman who was from the same town as Wolfe. When Look Homeward, Angel came out, she told me, her parents penciled in the real names in the margins of their copy. Then someone borrowed the book and didn’t return it, so you can add that to the list of things that never made it home again.

Anyone who knows me (and many who do not) can identify my writing as sculpted from the unadulterated raw stuff of my biography, but the end product is actually more like that game Three Truths and a Lie: most of it’s true, I mean, ‘true’ as in ‘happened’ (pace Wiesel), but there’s some other stuff that creeps in, and after a while, I’m not always sure which is which.

I don’t quite know how that other stuff gets in, because it occurs in the white heat of creation, and little of what goes on in there survives in conscious memory. I start describing, in great detail, something I don’t remember all that well, and I go on, and on, losing track of time, growing short of breath—I get whipped up, the scene becomes overlaid with more and more detail that surges up from god knows where, and this is some of the best writing that I do.

That said, the section above, about the dementia ward, contains not a grain of the invented. It’s all real. Oh, except that the muchacha incident and the woman getting caught in the debris in her wheelchair did not in fact happen on the same day—I combined them, for maximum narrative density. Does that minor change make it fiction? Or is it still nonfiction, but a kind of unethical nonfiction?

It’s a mosaic; it’s a medley; it’s a mash-up.

 

I don’t worry too much. It’s writing; it’s a story, not reportage; not news, fake or otherwise.  It’s mine; I wrote it; call it what you like, as long as reading it lifts you, however briefly, above the quotidian—or plunges you into it more deeply.

(Filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, who made both documentaries and feature films and believed that each genre contains elements of the other, said, “Once you frame the shot, it’s fiction.” This from a documentary about her work.)

The part about the pomogeetye lady is real, though, because that happens every single time. It happened on the muchacha day, and it happened on the wheelchair-getting-stuck day, and it happens on every other day as well. But lots of other things happened on all of those days, some that I cut or omitted, and many that simply washed through the memory sieve, floated downstream into increasingly murky waters and came gently to rest in the silt.

 

The following week, my mission is to find out more.

“Mom, remember that story you told me about Ed? In Esther’s apartment?”

“Ed who?”

I remind her about Isidore, known as Ed; his movie-star handsome brothers; Viola and the puppet theatre; Esther; the view of the lake; Ed stumbling out of the bedroom tucking in his shirt.

She looks at me blankly.

There’s a pause. Then, she stretches luxuriously as after a long nap and says, “I really must pull myself together one of these days and get over to the library.”  It’s six months since she was last off the ward, one halcyon October afternoon when she allowed me to wheel her down to the river’s edge.

Why the library, why now?

I wait.

“I need to lay my hands on a copy of Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles Lamb,” she says.

“How come?”

“I’ve been trying and trying,” she says with a weary air, “to remember the story lines of Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Can you tell me what happens in those plays?”

I regard her blankly.

Romeo and Juliet I could recount, maybe. Hamlet, in a pinch. But there would definitely be some gaps.

 

Contributor Update: Victor Lodato Waxes Romantic In The Times

Hey there dear readers! Superstition Review is back after a brief hiatus with more good news: past contributor Victor Lodato’s essay “When Your Greatest Romance Is a Friendship” has been published in The New York Times‘ “Modern Love” column. Lodato was featured in our Interview section of Issue 8 in an interview conducted by former intern Marie Lazaro. In addition to being a recipient of the PEN Center USA Award for fiction, Victor Lodato has also been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Institute as well as the National Endowment for the Arts.  His latest novel, “Edgar and Lucy” is out now from Macmillan, and can be found both online as well as at most major bookstores. Do yourself a favor and check out the essay here, and buy one (or two, or seven) copies of “Edgar and Lucy” here. Congratulations Victor, we couldn’t be happier to know you!

Read the essay and buy the book!

Victor Lodato, author of “When Your Greatest Romance Is a Friendship” and “Edgar and Lucy.”

Contributor Update: Denise Emanuel Clemen

Denise Emanuel ClemenWe’re so excited to report that Denise Emanuel Clemen’s book, Birth Mother: A Memoir, is now available as an MP3 CD. Denise’s memoir was first published by Shebooks in 2014 and released on Audible in 2015.

For those who are unfamiliar with Birth Mother: A Memoir, here’s a bit more information:

Pregnant from her first sexual encounter, a teenager living in a town of 3,000 Catholics keeps her secret from everyone until six weeks before the baby’s due date. Hustled out of town and hidden in the Iowa countryside within hours of finally confiding in her mother, she concocts a scheme that will allow her to raise her child, but can she win over any of the people who might help her? As her pregnancy and its looming consequences unfold, she realizes that her life of lies and secrets has only just begun.

You can access Denise’s piece, “The Marriage Essay,” in Issue 18 of Superstition Review. You can also purchase Birth Mother: A Memoir from Barnes & Noble or on Amazon.

Guest Post, Mimi Schwartz: The Ethics of Writing True

Mimi Schwartz bio pictureWhat do I owe the people I write about? This concern is ongoing, whether I’m writing about family as in my marriage memoir, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, or about strangers I meet, as in Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father’s German Village.

Actually, I’m sometimes more concerned for strangers than for those I live with every day. Family can get mad at me. They can challenge my sense of truth. They can sue to keep me honest. Fortunately, none have—partly because, except for my sister, they are reasonable if I am reasonable; partly because I keep two caveats in my head while writing. One is Annie Dillard’s advice: “Writing memoir is an art, but not a martial art!” The other is from Kim Barnes after she discovered that, despite their battle scenes, her father, much to her surprise, liked her memoir In the Wilderness:

One thing that we always assume, wrongly, is that if we write about people honestly they will resent it and become angry. If you come at it for the right reasons and you treat people as you would your fictional characters—you know, you don’t allow them to be static—if you treat them with complexity and compassion, sometimes they will feel as though they’ve been honored, not because they’re presented in some ideal way but because they’re presented with understanding.

Both authors’ advice, however, was not enough help in the kitchens and living rooms of the Christians and Jews I met and interviewed about my father’s German village. Everyone was gracious; many served me homemade linzertorte. But unlike my family, I knew very little about them, and so had no context for processing what they were telling me about their memories and lives. Plus I had a built-in bias: these were Germans and I was Jewish, a child born in the US to parents who fled their country in the 1930s, so when they said, “Everyone got along before Hitler,” my struggles with fairness became part of the story. Finally, they were old people, unsophisticated, who thought I was only gathering the objective facts of their lives. And no matter how often I tried to explain narrative nonfiction, they did not understand that I was going to recreate them fully on the page, as I experienced what they said, thought, and did before, during, and after Nazi times.

One big question: Do I use real names? I had their written permission so I could—but should I? These people, as it turned out, were neither heroes nor villains, so were names ethically necessary or a bad idea? With my family, I had no choice; my husband Stu was my husband Stu. But in Good Neighbors, Bad Times, I could follow the tradition of other writers of nonfiction books about small villages—and use pseudonyms.

In the end, like Carlo Levi’s Christ Stops at Eboli and Lawrence Wylie’s Village in the Vaucluse, I changed names. First, it universalized the story so people in other German villages couldn’t let themselves off the hook, saying, “Oh, that was X. We are Y.” Just like if you write “an Ivy League school,” Harvard can’t say, “Oh, that’s Princeton, not us!”  Second, and most important, the names were not essential to my story. Whether the postman was Herr Stolle or Herr Stoner had no consequence; he is still the young man in Hitler’s army who spent his retirement years researching the history of the village Jews.  His life is complicated, and as Kim Barnes advises, my challenge was to honor that complexity.

Since then, when I write nonfiction, I’m comfortable with this rule of thumb:  If people are neither famous nor infamous, they deserve privacy whenever possible. At the very least, they should not be hurt or embarrassed without good reason. I always let the reader know: sometimes with initials; sometimes with a “Let’s call her….” ‘ sometimes with a footnote, such as, “I’ve changed the name and some identifying details to honor requests for individual privacy.”

This rule has served me well. Friends continue meet for lunch, strangers still offer me linzertorte or the equivalent, and I feel I am writing true.

Guest Post, George Estreich: Products, Animals, Landscapes

In 2008, I lived in Australia with my family, where my wife, a pharmacologist, was on sabbatical. My daughters, then seven and twelve, attended Australian schools, and I stayed at home, completing the memoir I’d been working on since 2001.

While I was there, I took photos, captioned them for friends, and posted them as a private album on Google Picasa. At the same time, I kept a notebook in my shirt pocket, where I wrote down things I saw and ideas as they occurred to me.  This blog post draws on the journal and the online album.

It seems as tiny as a snow globe now, a hemisphere peopled by the Wiggles, Peter Garrett, and a kangaroo, and paved with brick-red Outback pebbles. Its air viscous and unbreathable, as with any imagined place. Though what I imagined seems as distant to me now, as Australia itself seemed to me then.

In the weeks before we came, I did little to defray my ignorance. We were busy getting ready to leave our house and country for a year. We said goodbye to friends and then said goodbye again, when we ran into them downtown. We threw a big party and I played guitar with my neighbor Dan. Friends came from Portland; Matt brought his dobro, I set it on my lap for a few rounds of Look at Miss Ohio, and though I rarely play lap slide, the notes all fell into place. That is the nostalgic version of home: where everything is easier, and where friends show up at your house with casseroles and salads to send you off.

kangarooWe switched the utilities, acquired e-mail addresses we could use overseas. I emptied bookshelves into boxes and put the boxes in the closet. I gathered every last scrap of paper I might need for the book I was writing. We backed up data and stored the disks with friends. We made copies of passports, social security numbers, immunization records. It was the final stages of the grand engineering project that had begun months before, in which a vast river of data was dammed and diverted south. Australia is, for Americans who think about it and know where it is, a kind of raw frontier: the unwelcoming Outback of Mad Max. But for us, the virtual preceded the actual. Pixels, passwords, passports. Visas and VISA.

I bought a digital bathroom scale and began to weigh our luggage. We were flying on Virgin Blue, a domestic carrier, from Sydney to Melbourne, and their checked luggage allowance was less than fifty pounds per person. When you are moving somewhere for a year, less than fifty pounds a person is not much. People with more foresight send entire containers on boats. I did the next best thing: I weighed each of our bags, using myself as a human tare. Then I measured the bags’ outer dimensions. Then I made a chart, noting the ratio of Weight to Volume. It felt like a productive activity, but in the end, we chose a mix of backpacks, rolling bags, and duffles, because we would be navigating five different airports in two countries with two children, and we wanted to be able to carry everything.

kangaroo 2What did we know about Australia? Not much. It was e-mails from friends of friends, e-mails from school administrators, estate agents, the scientist whose lab my wife would be working in. As for the neighborhood, we had the aerial view of Google Earth. We zoomed in on grainy photographs of the grid. It seemed suburban enough to have pools, but denser, mixed with retail and apartment buildings. I studied the tram map, its thick numbered lines like the nerves of a simple animal. I hoped the apartment would be quiet.

I decided, at the last minute, to leave the waders and boots at home. I didn’t want dried-on Oregon mud to hold us up at Customs: Australia, though vast, is still an island, with an island’s vulnerability to living pests.

kangaroo 3The fact loomed, unreal: we were moving to Australia. I imagined red dirt and kangaroos, though even “kangaroo” was a vague picture in my mind. My mother had warned me that the red kangaroos were dangerous. She had heard this somewhere, and over the years the rumor had crystallized into belief, until “red kangaroo” became synonymous with a creature whose powers of hoppity locomotion were matched only by its taste for human flesh. Presumably the Eastern Grey was friendly.

Having since seen kangaroos in the wild–if campgrounds, golf courses, and the Lassiter Highway count as “wild”–I’ve at least replaced the mind-cartoon I had with a living sketch. On the road to Uluru, in the desert west of Alice Springs, we saw red kangaroos that had been creamed by road trains, and lay by the roadside in varying stages of decay, from Just Napping to Bones Picked Clean. Now and then an eagle or crow rose up from the remains.

*

January. I begin buying things in the supermarket, just to take pictures of them. This goes on all year.

cereal 1I narrate it the way you narrate a dream. I was in my old house, except it wasn’t my house. I ate in a Burger King, but it was called a Hungry Jack’s. They were speaking English, but it wasn’t American. Australia was not a country where everything seemed different. It was a country which was jarringly the same, and yet whose sameness broke apart everywhere you looked.

cereal 2And yet this is wrong. It won’t do to say that Australia is like America, except–to note, for instance, the torqued vowels of ordinary Australian speech, the cleanly un-American fonts giving distances in meters (library, 200m; car park, 300m), or the egg-shaped object of Australian rules football, which looks like a regular football, but hungry jackssquashed at both ends. Comparison is inevitable; comparison distorts. The traveler’s reflexive habit of mind–to posit home as normative, away as variation–does not conform to the facts. Beneath the superficial perception of every surface–the supermarket cereal aisle alone, from Rice Bubbles to Sultana Bran, has undergone a sea change–is something more definite and ungraspable, like a scent: the understanding that all your life until now, you have lived in American airspace and breathed in American air, and the place you’ve moved to–Melbourne, Australia, a city of nearly four million faces, every one unfamiliar–has nothing to do with you.

*

pictureFebruary. Just after I took this photo, we saw Cate Blanchett and her husband walking down the sidewalk, holding hands. They were smiling and chatting, and no one bothered them. They seemed to occupy a perfect, effortless force field of privacy and consideration.

I remember it was a shock to see her existing in a particular place, at a particular time. As if her normal state were an immaterial Star Trek shimmer of transport, and she had condensed into existence from the ubiquity of images.

*

smokesI saw this cigarette packet, with its blunt, Australian warning, lying on the tram tracks. I was in Port Melbourne, delivering Laura’s forgotten lunch to her school. At home, in Corvallis, Oregon, the one-way trip to Laura’s school is either a carbon-neutral fifteen minute walk, or a guilty three-minute drive. A forgotten lunch does not alter the day. In Australia, since we had no car, and since Laura’s school was on the other side of the city, the trip took about thirty or forty minutes, depending on the trains and trams.

I’d been annoyed about having to make the trip. I was annoyed a lot in those days, annoyed to enraged. I woke up angry about nothing, or about something that was clearly irrational, a cover for something else. I write it in the past tense, though it is always a possibility, as if I were addicted to being angry. It puzzled my wife and kids and upset them. Still, I took the lunch, though I was ticking off the lost minutes on some sort of mental calculator: could’ve finished a paragraph, could’ve finished the chapter. As if the time wouldn’t have dissipated into e-mail.

train trackBut by the time I got to Laura’s school, I no longer had anything to be angry about, or the anger, like a time-lapse scab, had dried up and disappeared. I felt okay, I was happy to see Laura thriving in her classroom. Port Melbourne is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, its quiet, empty streets lined with rowhouses, their porches decorated with ornate iron fretwork. The private mental hurricane I woke to had faded, quick as Melbourne weather, and as I crossed the empty reserve with its gums and sycamores I could hear rosellas in the trees, a sound shocking as the flash of crimson and green, the parrot’s silhouette above. It stood out like a sign, the way everything does, and what had seemed a marker of dislocation suddenly seemed to betoken possibility.

In Port Melbourne, on its way to the bay, the tram line separates from the street and becomes a light rail line. You can see the trams coming from a long way away. In one direction is the Bass Strait, in the other is the Central Business District. The tracks were empty, so I stood there for half a minute and looked towards the CBD. It rose but did not loom. Its knot of skyscrapers seemed distant yet close, and above them the Eureka Tower lifted its wedge of gold.

*

buildingOften, on my way to the Melbourne Museum, I walked by the Royal Exhibition Building. Always it was different: one weekend a Bridal Expo, with a stretch Hummer parked outside. Young couples and young women with their mothers, walking towards the front doors. Another weekend it was the Taste of Melbourne festival; another, the Home and Garden Show. I thought of the place as a giant moth, diffusing faint pheromones into the air of Melbourne which only brides-to-be or foodies or devotees of tea roses could possibly detect, and who were filtered from the insectile biomass of the city, its endless crowds.

*

macIn May, I finished the memoir. This picture was taken a few days before I sent it to my then-agent; the Post-It tabs mark edits to be completed.

After a few weeks the rejections started to come in. Many were kind. All seemed part of a free fall, and though the tone of each was different, the uniform message was that the book—a memoir about raising my younger daughter Laura, who has Down syndrome—would not sell.

All along I had been writing a book, but as I realized — crashingly obvious, but no less true for that — a book is also a product. This was, remember, during the global financial crisis: my book was a weird investment in a time when people were already investment-shy, in a business upended not only by a cratering global economy but also by the advent of the digital.

night photo 1Much later, after the book was accepted by a university press, I realized that the book’s flaws were also to blame. The story part and the history part weren’t getting along: “I keep tripping over John Langdon Down,” as my editor told me. Only then did the book begin to find its true shape. But that insight was a continent and a year away.night photo 2

I began taking pictures at night, wandering our neighborhood between laundry cycles or lagging behind the family on nights out in the CBD. I set the camera on garbage cans, retaining walls, any flat surface, slowed the exposure to an eighth or a quarter of a second, set the timer. It was a way of looking around, of registering the surfeit of detail–for that was what living in Melbourne felt like, that I was swamped with details, with crowds and signage and multistory buildings, four million layered and interwoven lives on a city that seemd an island on a country that was an island too, so that the least visual fact, the tiniest Pty Ltd or spotted-neck dove, embodied a vast displacement. The camera caught it all. It saw the things I saw, and it saw the things I didn’t see and only saw later, looking at IMG_5231 on the laptop; and this was truest of all for the photographs taken at night.

*

June 2008: Melbourne Museum

When I moved from the East Coast of the United States to the West, I moved from a deciduous world to an evergreen one. Western Oregon is defined by the Douglas fir, its scraggy greenness a discontinuous carpet in the Coast Range and the Cascade foothills. Compared to the winter-fired leaves of the northeast–an almost metallurgical glow, a blade about to be quenched–the hills outside town are monochrome. They vary with the sunlight, not the season. When you can see them through the clouds at all, or when you bother to look up.

plantsLike other orienting assumptions I brought with me to Australia–the idea that North = Cold, for instance, or that January = Winter, or the idea that there are four seasons at all–Deciduous Versus Evergreen failed somewhere south of the equator. Australia is not Deciduous or Evergreen. Australia is Neither. Continentally speaking, it hasn’t been on speaking terms with North America since the good old days of Pangea. Australia was part of Gondwanaland, and Gondwanaland broke up, and the pieces drifted. Australia drifted north, towards the equator; it became hotter and drier, and eucalypts evolved and took over. The fern trees and southern beech forests are relics of a wetter time.

So I learned on repeated visits to the Melbourne Museum, in the Forest Gallery–a soaring atrium that distills the idea of an Australian forest into examples and lessons. There are fern trees and eucalypts and beeches, most labeled. There is a burned tree with a video monitor in it, recycling a short video on bushfires. There are lizards, galaxias, turtles; there are birds, kept in by netting fifty feet above. A fairy wren, a satin bowerbird with a heap of blue scraps just beside the roped-off path.

I went to the museum often. I’d enter the Forest Gallery through the sliding glass doors, then walk up the slanted path on the left, then turn right, descending to a subterranean display: a darkened tunnel, the path illuminated by tiny lights like a landing strip or theater aisle. There was an aquarium, a waterfall, a video screen displaying both Aboriginal and Western accounts of the Yarra River’s formation.

museumI would emerge from the tunnel with its endlessly repeated video, its wash of recorded water and its murky fish tank, to etched metal plaques describing the relic forests. They explained how Gondwanaland divided into India, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. The supercontinent marked with dotted lines, as if for a child’s scissors practice. In successive etchings, the continents separated and drifted, like an idea coming apart. Or a vague thought, an inkling, resolving into its divisions. That motion, that million-year drift, only one of the motions that composes the everyday: unnoticed and necessary, the planet’s rotation, the cloud systems trailed like scarves behind a dancer.

*

In August, I visited Fitzroy Gardens.  It’s a beautiful park, with wide, gently looping walkways and a variety of mostly native trees. But it is also the utility drawer of Melbourne parks, the place where you shove the bits of string and rubber bands and flathead screws, the things you don’t know what to do with, the parts of an unspecified machine:

model tudor village(1) The actual stone cottage of Captain James Cook’s parents, disassembled, shipped across the ocean, and reassembled. It has a gift shop, and historically accurate gardens growing the things Captain Cook’s mom and dad might have grown, and a white surveillance camera mounted on a corner of the building.

(2) A plant conservatory, whose architecture echoes a Spanish mission.

play ground(3) A Model Tudor Village, cast in concrete. The buildings reach to an average adult’s kneecap. The windows are filled in: the structures seem to be solid, all the way through. The look of the buildings (doughy, a little saggy, obviously molded from something soft) reminds one of an elaborate cake, or of a precocious child’s diorama for school.

(4) Miscellaneous fountains invoking river gods in which nobody, so far as I know, actually believes.

(5) A café serving light lunch fare and espresso drinks.

(6) A playground with two structures: a slide shaped like a dragon (climb up the head, slide down the tail), and two swings attached to a sort of beheaded giraffe. Reticulated, black-hooved, long-necked, but where the head should be, it has two lateral projections, like a hammerhead shark. The swings hang from the projections.

(7) A “Fairies Tree” I never could find.

house 1In the Captain Cook house, when you ascend the steps, you hear steps ascending after you. As if the ghosts had heard you come in and wanted to join you.

Then a prerecorded conversation: Capt. Cook’s parents, Grace and James Sr., call their daughter Margaret upstairs to the fire. They talk about marrying Margaret off some day. Then Margaret is sent downstairs to bed with a candle. But before she goes to sleep – James appears! He has been serving 4 months on the Eagle and has joined the Navy!

house 2He goes to sleep, and his father expresses hope that he may make something of himself yet. He has not yet discovered Australia.

A staginess, as if the Past knew it was past, and knew we were looking too.

Across the entrance to a room, a rope with a brass hook at each end, like a leash for a world without masters.

*

silhouetteSometimes I felt like a bowerbird. Or, more prosaically, a squirrel. I hoarded blue memories. I buried stuff in the soft ground of the brain. Now I’m digging it all up to see what it looks like.

turboSome things, as if made of plastic or gold, seem utterly unchanged: a memory of a day in the Australian desert; or walking down a cramped, sunlit laneway spangled with graffiti; or the long escalator ascending from Parliament station; but others, as if organic, seem transformed by their time underground, partly or wholly decomposed, their shapes altered or changed in color or shot through with the tangles of forgetfulness; and yet others change, in an instant, when exposed to the air.

*

boats

*

pigeonSeptember. Since the memoir wasn’t getting published anytime soon, I thought I’d keep writing about Australia. I poured the continent through one topic and the next, like sieves or filters. The election. The climate. The financial crisis. But these were grand topics, and I could do little with them. What stays with me are the colors of urban Australian birds: house sparrows, their muddied browns and grays. As if painted with the water left in the jar, after one of Laura’s watercolor sessions. Pigeons: like black-and-white films poorly colorized, a filthy iridescence.

Once, on the platform of the South Yarra station, I saw a seagull without feet. It hopped along on its stumps, or knuckles. Its eyes impassive, or not expressive in any way I could understand.

birdIn the Melbourne Central Food Court–a slow brown shrapnel of birds exploded above me. My wife was at work, my daughters in school. I sat with my Kurry Feast on its compartmentalized metal plate.

In Flinders Street Station once, as we sat together eating churros, I heard furious cheeping from a couple of tables over. When I looked closer, a mob of house sparrows was tearing one of their own apart.

*

night viewEvery sense is an isotope of memory. A fragrance has a momentary half-life: each morning, when I walked out the apartment door, it was as if I’d forgotten the scent of eucalyptus while I was asleep. It was new again, or new and familiar, the way a poetic image is supposed to be. Its scent distilled the place we’d chosen, and our distance from the place we’d left behind. Now, like any decaying element, eucalyptus has become eucalyptus. I can call to mind the tootling of magpies, or the way the first-floor apartment shook as the #5 tram rumbled past, or the blue-and-yellow uniforms of the boys from the Catholic school nearby–though these memories, too, are decaying, the tootling blurred/distilled to a reedy ghostliness, the tram’s vibrations recalled but silenced, the boys’ faces erased. They are like rumors I heard from myself: uncertain, but mine. But the odors might as well be something I read about: they are utterly transformed, inert, stabilized in a word.

treesOne morning in the Australian spring, walking out of the apartment as always to wait for Laura’s bus to whip out and angle across commuter traffic, I noticed the scent of eucalyptus, and realized I had lived in Australia long enough to have that scent numbed by cold and reawakened. I inhaled the spring, the way I did as a suburban child, except it was September, and I was forty-three, and the spring smelled newly strange.

If could I conjure that sense, unscrew the sealed jar of Australian air I carry in my brain, measure its parts per million, I would find the pure astringent strains of eucalyptus admixed with car exhaust, loam, artificial grass, cigarette smoke, dry cleaning chemicals, a musty box of clothes and toys dumped on the doorstep of the Op Shop, and a few molecules drifting over from the bakeries and butchers on Glenferrie Road.

In this model, I am the constant, the observer, the Geiger counter, and my memories of Australia are what fade. In truth, it is Australia that endures, and I am decaying; and long after the last atom of what I am has broken down, been reabsorbed, raised like ash or as ash into the weather patterns I have done my part to change, Australia will renew itself, and will smell pretty much the same, in its September spring.

*

angular buildingWandering through the Immigration Museum, I saw a late 19th century lithograph of a crowded Melbourne wharf. It was like a child’s drawing, the perfect triangles of rigging bisected by masts. I imagine them as the triangles that wrap Federation Square now, a tessellation of the past.

The wharves were crowded because gold had been discovered. In time the river of gold dwindled, and the speculative real estate bubble eventually popped. As a friend told me, that’s why, when you walk up Glenferrie Road, the dates on streetthe second story of each building–formed in concrete like foundation stones in the air–stop at 1890. For over a decade the depression brought new building to a halt.

A bubble. I imagine the gold beaten to a thin tissue and inflated. Then bursting, leaving a residue of houses and railroads and buildings.

*

November.

obama 2

 

*

Things temporary residents do that tourists don’t: Pay utility bills. Chaperone on school field trips. Visit tiny, local parks multiple times. Begin to recognize faces on the street. Begin to be recognized. Buy furniture. Rent an apartment.

Longer term than us: Acquire accents. Acquire citizenship. Stay.

*

public artFragments from the shirt pocket journal, November:

Living here, I think of the convenience of the Bionic Woman’s adventures, which always featured a distant conversation she could use her Bionic Ear to listen to, just as the Six Million Dollar Man was called upon to spy on faraway objects with his Bionic Eye.

If only life furnished events so precisely calibrated to our talents. This is what we are doing with our jobs, our careers, our lives, to increase the probability of this convergence.

Moving to Australia was the opposite of this. We moved here because we could. It was more difficult–we knew how to be ourselves in Oregon–but it has been worth it, if only to prove to ourselves that at this late date, we can alter our talents to fit the surroundings.

*

Sadistically bad tram driver. His lurching would produce motion sickness in a rock.

Two seats ahead of me, a woman with her mirrored compact hinged open, as if taking a bearing on a distant mountain.

Touch screen display in the National Gallery of Victoria, in The Cricket & the Dragon: Animals in Asian Art:

You are energetic, excitable, and stubborn.

The dragon rules the hours

7 a.m.

to

9 a.m.

because this is when dragons begin to produce rain.

mall 1December. I sat–I was going to say, in the shadow of the Shot Tower, but the tower is enclosed by a shopping mall, and malls, for the most part, are free of shadow. Their light is atrial, diffuse. It is not meant to be noticed. But if you were to look up, you’d find, mingled with neon and incandescence and fluorescence, an actual daylight filtering down from the Antipodean sky; and looking up, one would see the Shot Tower, a brick tower like a smokestack without a factory, enclosed beneath a cone of gridded glass.

Buckets of molten lead were hauled up to the top of the tower, then poured through a sort of colander. As the streams of lead fell through the air, they separated into teardrops, which solidified into spheres. A huge basin of water waited at the bottom, to cool the shot. It seemed like writing to me, the transformations involved:  memory mined, refined, melted down, and winched up–molten, poisonous, heavy, formless–to be turned into something useful. A weapon, something to sell.

I like the idea of something taking form as it falls, and its form becoming permanent from the way it lands.

mall 2In the runup to Christmas, a gigantic implied Christmas tree, made from golden spheres—a Ferrero Rocher promotion—was hung beside the shot tower, as if some alchemy had transmuted lead shot into gold.

The Shot Tower is a museum now. You enter through the R.M. Williams store, past sales displays which–even to my American eyes, and even adjusting for the exchange rate, the cachet of the brand, and the general priciness of Melbourne–did not compute as bargains: a pair of shorts and T-shirt for only $100! Like everything else, R.M. Williams seemed underwater-familiar, mixing things I understood fluently (casual sportswear, shopping with credit cards, the idea of the frontier) with things unfamiliar (horse-related objects, the mystique of R.M. Williams, the Australian frontier). Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist, writes in his memoir that getting outfitted at R.M. Williams was a rite of passage for young Australian men.

*

Undated journal entry:

We are shrinking America. It is all we knew until we got here, it was our oxygen and our ground, and its shores were our shores. But the gift of distance is to know that this mindset is an island.

Sometimes I feel as if I am reclining in a soft planetarium seat, looking up at a field of white dots, and a helpful baritone voice is explaining the strange constellations, the ones I have never seen, and highlighting them with lines of force. These three dots are The Playground. These are The Lamington. These are The Wallaby, The Platypus, The Tram.

They are the lights, the pattern, but they appear against the dark: thick, velvety with the buzzing the eye makes to fill an absence. A depression, an artificial dark, the unlit interior of a hemisphere. I’m that dark, and the mysterious projector too, all brushed metal and pierced with light and pivoting to alter the display; and I’m the voice in the room that sounds like mine, and the one half-dozing in the chair, who startles when the lights come up.

Guest Post, Elizabeth Sheets: The Illusion of Ascending

dad readsI’ve always been a reader. I don’t know if this is my parents’ fault or not. Recently I found a crayon drawing and questionnaire book I made when I was in elementary school. On one of the pages it asks what my parents do during the day while I’m at school. My answers were: My Dad builds Rockets. My Mom sits on the couch all day and reads love stories. I don’t think that was entirely true, I mean, my Dad read books too. In any case, I do remember that prior to puberty, trips to the mall were exciting for two reasons: first, because I could climb up and sit in the conversion vans in the car dealership that was actually in our mall; and second, we got to go to Walden Books. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so we didn’t buy a lot of new books there, but it was a thrill just to be there and look around. I knew that eventually the books on those shelves would find their way to our city library.

As a kid, I was fairly well read. Once I got beyond Dr. Seuss, I enjoyed Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scott O’Dell, Louisa May Alcott, Franklin Dixon, Carolyn Keene, the Choose Your Own Adventure Series, and of course, Judy Blume. There are a few in that list some might consider literary, but many fall into the category of good old genre fiction. I still have many of them because I saved them for my children. And now I’m saving them for my grandchildren, because I don’t think I was as successful as my parents were at passing down the love of literature.

As I got older, I dove harder into genre writing. Once I could get books from the library that didn’t have the purple dot on them, my literary world was blown wide open. I devoured everything from Jean Auel, Piers Anthony, and Marion Zimmer Bradley to Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice. Some of these authors I still read today. Because they’re good, and because I can get lost in the worlds they bring to my mind’s eye.

Once I started my degree program, my literary world was blown open again. Even with all of the reading in my youth, there was much that I missed. Memoirs? Whatever were those? Well, all of those English Lit classes filled me in, and filled me up to the brim with writing on every social topic I could imagine, and a few more besides.

Writing classes and workshops introduced me to the short story, and the idea that writers who don’t get paid are somehow of more value than those who do. I’m not much for martyrs, but I bought in. In my few years in school, my professors helped nurture in me a love of the short story, and an appreciation for the craft of drawing them out of myself and others. And so now, my private library grows full of chapbooks and short story collections. To my list of favorite authors I’m adding Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, Matt Bell, Dan Chaon, Tara Ison, Margaret Atwood, and so many more.

But for all my education, and my editorship with a literary magazine, and my degree in English and Creative Writing… I still read Anne Rice. In fact, she might just be my very favorite person ever (not that I know her personally, but I do follow her on Facebook, so I feel like that counts… anyway).

I’m reminded of this funny thing that happened recently.

modest houseMy husband and I raised our children in a suburban neighborhood of the sprawling Phoenix Metropolitan Area. We had a modest income, and a modest house. We drove practical cars, and our kids went to public schools. There was a house of worship a half mile in any direction from our house. Our neighbors were diverse. To the east was a family of folks who spoke little English, had obnoxious barking dogs, and always had parties in the front yard instead of the back. To the south were the drug dealers. The husband rode a very noisy Harley and cut his entire lawn holding a Weedwacker in one hand and a beer in the other. His wife had no teeth and only wore a bra on Sundays. (I guess they weren’t very good drug dealers.)

We lived in that house 15 years, and our kids came up just fine.

And just a couple of months ago, we moved. Since our income has doubled, so has our mortgage and the square footage of our new house. Our new block is glorious. The neighbors all cut their grass on Wednesdays, and everyone drives a new car. There are bunnies and quail everywhere, and no one parks in their lawn.

School just started a couple weeks ago, and as I was driving past the elementary school on my way back from my morning Starbucks run, I noted that the crossing guard drives a Jaguar. A Jaguar.

This is it, I thought, we have definitely arrived. All of that hard work, education, ladder climbing, etc., has all paid off. Finally. Now we can live among the educated folk. People like us. Cultured people. People who read. If the people across the street are drug dealers, well they’re damn good ones because their kids drive BMWs.

And then I turned down our street. It was a Thursday. Blue barrel pick up day. About three houses in, out came a neighbor down his drive way, pushing his barrel out to the curb. He was wearing a pair of very snug fitting, bright red boxer briefs. His hairy belly was spilling over the waistband, and his tangled bedhead hair pointed in all directions from his unshaven face. He looked up as I drove past. Smiled.

I about choked on my chai.

But it’s okay. I’m glad I saw him. It’s a great reminder: there’s room on the block for everyone.  He cuts his grass, he parks in the garage. Maybe his wife builds rockets.