Sunday, October 24, 2010

All Knees Shall Bend And Every Tongue Shall Vow (part 1)

[Here's the first of five installments of B.N.'s powerful new story.  The story will run thru Thursday 10/28]

All Knees Shall Bend And Every Tongue Shall Vow
Alainu Prayer/Issia 45.23

Voices rolled over the vast white and glass terminal, pinged into columns and were then cut short by utilitarian architecture and human bulk, boarding calls, squalling infants, announcements and safety instructions.  From where she was standing next to a magazine rack Inez watched shows of easy emotions—oh my god I am so glad to see you—kind gestures of reaching down to lift another’s bags.   As she moved deeper into the terminal past the gift and souvenir shops stocked with mugs and tee shirts what she saw were whole fat families in shorts and T-shirts, boisterous, mean-spirited and spiteful towards each other, slouching in flip-flops and shorts.  How worn down everything felt, everyone looked.
That whole autumn and well into winter, she feared every cloud would let loose an acid rain that could melt bone.  Images kept popping up like a jack in the box . . . the monkey thought it all was in fun—.  Just when the merry music called you closer, lulled you:  Boom.   Suddenly somewhere the herd startled, changed direction and stampeded the fields where the women and their children tended the crop of sorghum. Upriver the villagers had taken sick—mysterious fevers that turn innards to gore soup. Someplace at every moment great suffering was occurring—horrible injustice fanned out like a deck of cards.  She remembered her own mother’s moods and how she watched her face as she pushed back the images of jackbooted thugs goose-stepping in the town square; how she feared it would no doubt in time be right down 13th Avenue.  “Mom, it is America” she would tell her.  “All that was a long time ago, we are so safe that we’re bored stupid.”  She knew her mother fought back the specters with small realities of meat on sale, upcoming weddings. Like a machete cutting back the jungle undergrowth, she wielded an imaginary blade and whacked back the python of her moods of their past.

Don’t even ask the question. What was the future?  Snarling hellhounds moving in packs at the edge of the city. 

Each day the newspapers and the military experts on television assured the jittery public that guilty parties would be found.   The axis of evil was pushpins in maps.  Reports said he had been sighted on a mountain trail; the best intelligence said he was holding up in a cave—dangerous mysterious terrain.  He was a shape-shifter—video images were authenticated or dismissed—sinister forces at work with daggers, or box cutters.  Detention centers were set up.  Weapons grade plutonium moved by pack mule over borders that only existed on maps.  Land mines were disguised as children’s toys.

Yes, lately the whole mood of things was different. Every time she left her apartment, she told herself, just a run to the corner market—2 peaches a croissant and home.  Now, she repeats just a weekend, only a weekend.
She slid into the molded plastic chair and waited for her boarding call.  Her fellow passengers began to move downstream to collect at the gate.  She clutched two forms of photo id, and she arrived four hours prior to scheduled departure.  

One of the first things she noticed was that a new breed of people had evolved and left the primordial broth.   “Homeland Security” had recruited the entire population of the indifferent and the brutish to strip all the others down to their stocking feet, to confiscate, knitting needles from old ladies and plastic nunchucks from small children. She watched people trudge doggedly toward the boarding gate door, heavy with an invisible burden, some talking into cell phones or wearing headphones— Airline representatives on cue moved in from behind counters with walkie-talkies.  She was still trying to gather her things back into her purse from the final security check.  It had all felt like a gust of wind and she was bits of paper that went flying.   Just last week she drove past what the future was supposed to be—the 1964 World’s Fair Globe—one world—futuristic, easy and benign as moving sidewalks that transported the weary.  Her stomach was in a roil of twists.  How complicated was the new millennium?  On a personal level barely indistinguishable from the old, except for the heightened sense of sheer terror she now has at flying.  How different is a plane from a missile anyway?  Cargo. Human. 

That day she was in the 40’s near 5th Ave and the morning sky had the perfect pitch of blue, autumnal and very warm.  It was a beautiful day.   First, she noticed people packed into bars and restaurants watching televisions— Why was she even in midtown? The latch on her bracelet had broken and she was just going to have it repaired.  Then she heard the talk, saw the confused and quiet faces.  She could see all the way up 5th—that was how clear and perfect the day was.  And she saw the tower just collapse.

That first week she went with Mrs. Mermelstien to a Shiva house—the pile still burning.  Those on the upper floors above the impact used their cell phones to call out. The few Orthodox men working that day in the towers called the Rabbi in Brooklyn, the main possek—he answered the most difficult questions concerning the laws of life and death.  How had they formed the question—did they even need to speak the words?  “Jump,”  the Rabbi said, what else did he say to them?  Well, he never spoke about those final conversations.  They called their wives—those last details—where she could find the keys to the safety deposit box, the ethical will for the children.

The whole winter was bitter and complicated.  People were sifting through toxic ash looking for bits of bone and teeth.   Spring brought a little relief.   A few weeks ago, when Julian had called, he had to leave a message.  When she called him back the person that answered the phone said he was “out on the Island” for the weekend.   It was not until the middle of the week that she actually spoke to him.   At which point she was already worn thin, and after the train home from teaching her class; looking at her small white cartons of oily Chinese take out, she was sure she had no past and certainly no future. But then his voice—a warm velvet curtain of invitation. Did she leap up at the chance?  No, she imagined graceful back flips of her body agile, supple.

“Sure I’d love to,” she said.  She was so absorbed in the possibility of stepping out of own life even briefly that it hardly registered that Julian’s sister Cleo was getting married again.  All Inez felt was the world once again had potential and would welcome her, if not with roaring cheers then with polite applause.  The passage of decades was erased.

In graduate school when they were all still living in the area, Julian used to coax her out of her dreary basement apartment, the card table buried under a half finished, thesis on—what was it?  Folk-tales, Gypsy melodies, Child Ballads.   She drank frothy cups of cappuccino, ate flan with just a hint of amaretto—here kitty, kitty, come sweet pussycat, and she would stretch and rub against him.  Did she purr?  God she hoped not.  Now it was so nice of him to invite her and of course it was all right if he brought a guest—his sister’s wedding, okay not his sister’s first time to the fair.

Last summer she felt finally, after ten years a life about to begin she and Nathan were looking for a house together.  Not too late.  She imagined strollers.  Then he came home from a weeklong conference in Scotland, bitter and distant and covered with a strange rash. “Did your paper not go well,” she asked?   “Maybe you need to see a Doctor.”

How did he put it?  What had Nathan said, scratching his arm, that he was attracted to women, to some men, and just not to her?  Uhm, attraction, a notion she turned over in mind as quickly as one turns her head to avert her eyes from a horrific car crash—a severed head rolling in the gutter.  Two decades of therapy, ten of her life and he did not even feign contrition.  He left to live with a 24-year-old graduate student, who had stayed after he presented his paper to ask some questions.  Inez helped him pack— except for one photograph of Nathan together with his mother.  That, she cut up and placed in bits into an ice tray filled with water, now pushed into the back of her freezer.  Her mother had once implied that she was merely a courtesan or was it a cover?

Almost a year after Nathan decamped Julian called her out of the blue.  He was in New York on some business and he wanted to “do” lunch.  When she first told Julian that Nathan had left to move in with a 24-year-old, Julian reached over and touched the top of her hand.  It was after all Julian who introduced her to Nathan.  She remembered, Julian said that Nathan seemed to want the same things in life as she did.  Even that day having lunch in a place that Julian picked because of its reputation for Vietnamese noodles, she saw people gravitated toward Julian; how many times was he given refills on a hardly sipped drink.  Okay, she was teary and ragged, relating the whole story, and not looking like anyone to just strike up a conversation with, but was she invisible?  Over the years she had heard that professionally, he was sought after.   His intuition and knowledge on art and artifacts mattered, his keen eye had in fact made him almost rich, which he was to start with; but he did not lose any ground.  Her own vision had gone blurry after Nathan left, maybe it had been dimming slowly all along. She had the mind numbing relentless repetition, work getting home to the shoebox apartment that was “only temporary” what was that, twenty years ago?  

She could not even sum it up any more.  And nobody ever asked her to.  Food tasted like ash, colors drained out of objects.  Exchanges became fraught, defensive.  Was this age? Was Nathan the final blow?  Her life, a dowager’s hump— weekends at home watching old movies. With friends and colleagues there were still parties, but they grew increasingly more infrequent and more detailed, everything stood for something else— orchid centerpieces, and complex seating arrangements—things needed to addressed, redressed, divorces, affairs, plain old bad feelings.  She thought she would have it too in her hand.  It no longer seemed to matter how graciously she had pressed through the period of baby showers and then Bar Mitzvahs, graduation parties.  In place of the smoky illicit parties of college students trying to be badass, there were the occasional twenty-fifth anniversaries—white tablecloths with canvas umbrellas waving in the breeze. 
Julian—they had tried—something.   What was that about?  Everybody was trying something with everybody else.  Who knew?  Back then things did not require explanations as they do now.  All that clumsily fumbling in the dark or the light.  Had they crossed a boundary that should have not been crossed?  Had they taken it too far because they could?  Or was it that she felt that just her proximity to him added a dimension to her that she did not have on her own, that she could never have on her own, that made her better, made her more?  Briefly, even Julian’s petulant artsy crowd dressed in combat boots and go-go skirts treated her better.  Then they tried it again.  Another decade, tried it again.

Inez bought three magazines at the kiosk, breath mints, and a granola bar—she did not know if they even gave peanuts anymore on short flights.  She wondered whether or not these would be taken from her at the final security.   Her fellow travelers began to collect at the boarding door. For the most part they seemed ill-tempered, frazzled, a man in a navy blue business suit and a red tie sticking out from a side pocket elbowed his way to the front of the snaking line, a baby in an outfit with a large yellow sunflower bawled and sweated in his mothers arms.   Why hadn’t she taken the train? 

© 2010

[Please check back tomorrow for part 2!]

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