The Nurse

The old-lady in the wheelchair had hair that looked like white cotton candy, or like soft steel wool, which was blown backwards by the autumn wind, away from her dark-haired nurse, who cradled a phone in her right hand, her right shoulder cocked toward it, and whose cigarette was gently wedged between the first two fingers of her left hand.

Her body autonomically arranged her hand in this pose only when she smoked, her taut fingers forming scissors, never cutting, always nurturing, its precious ward. This hand remained relatively motionless as she spoke. It didn’t venture to expand on, accentuate or prove her words, which were inaudible to those sitting more than twenty feet away. In fact, the hand seemed to move to her mouth during drags almost as a balm during her conversation, a private succor unseen to her confidante. The hand moved to her unadorned lips, and the younger woman puckered and drew in, like a maiden accepting her lover. She dismissed the smoke, which brushed past the older lady’s candy hair, for a moment matching it in tone and texture.

The nurse sat on a granite bench outside the subway entrance at Verdi Square just north of 72nd Street and Broadway.

The white-haired lady gazed to the right of the subway entrance. She saw a man digging through a green trash can, its opening the diameter of a cantaloupe melon, until he found a half-consumed plastic bottle of blue Gatorade. He twisted the orange top and without a thought tilted it back, a thin blue stream flowing from the corner of his mouth over salt-and-pepper whiskers and onto his overcoat. Though the air temperature was not below the mid-60s, the man wore heaping gray rags that looked like layer upon layer of battle-beaten army blankets and thinning Hefty garbage bags. His tightly coiled black hair was in tufts, dusty with city grime, and had pieces of lint and paper confetti stuck haphazardly it.

He saw the older lady watching him, and he started to walk toward her and the nurse, who was still on the phone.

photo: SuperFantastic

Unchanging

She sat with her back to a cypress tree,
Her front to the river and to the six children,
fanned in front like a peacock’s tail.
They stood and watched her blankly, not speaking.
Her knees were drawn to her chest, her
Shoulders jerking up and down, her
Hands covering her face, her
Palms pressing the images of the six
Into her memory,
Her present,
The future.

The river frothed behind the six, the whitewater relentlessly and mercilessly crashing against rocks smoothed by destruction over thousands of years and leading inexorably to the waterfall fifty yards downstream.

She said something through her hands to a girl of 14 and a boy of 12,
Who both turned
Away and walked back along the water’s edge down the
Brown dirt path from which they’d come.
Their pencil-like bodies grew smaller and
Smaller as a girl of 3 watched them instead of watching
Her mother. Their slender figures disappeared around a bend where

The whitewater frothed, moving toward the four children and

The woman. The children were silent
Before her.

The roiling water gurgled and hissed, its bubbles’ bursts and popping drowned by the roar downstream, its uninhibited dance on the rocks calling for attention, like a pot of milk overflowing on a stovetop and fizzing on the gas burners.

The woman took her hands away from
Her face, which was red and
Shiny.
Across the river was a cliff, and there was a squirrel
Scrambling down the crumbling rock face, looking for food or perhaps
trying to escape a predator.
She looked over the heads of the four children and
Noticed
The leaves of a madrone tree, its fiery bark like dried
Blood against the ancient gray of the cliff.
A raven sat on a branch and watched.

The water behind the four young children boiled and hissed and cascaded over rocks, their surfaces pounded mercilessly for hundreds and maybe thousands of years in unchanging agreement between tormentor and slave. The waterfall groaned and howled, its receiving maw at the bottom swallowing and regurgitating all that flowed over its lips. Never satisfied.

She looked at her 3-year-old daughter.
The woman’s eyes were bloodshot.
She heard the raven CAW!—a loud, wounded plea for its mate and for
Food.
The whitewater beyond the girl hissed.
The waterfall groaned and howled.
The squirrel stumbled and somersaulted into
the pitch of a hollow.
The cliff was like a wave,
A wall trembling and
Poised to crash on all five of them
On the riverbank.

The woman heard a small voice.

She ignored it.

She stared at her 3-year-old.
The whitewater hissed behind the toddler, only ten feet behind
Her.
The waterfall howled, its mouth still open,
Waiting.
The cliff trembled,
Waiting.

Again she heard the voice.

The woman listened to the raven—CAW! CAW!—and the
Water—its bubbling and its dance, now silver with
Light shining off the spray as the
Waves splashed on the smooth, round rocks. A male
Cicada above her sang his mating song to an unknown lover.

The 3-year-old now yelled, “Mommy!”

The mother, her face wet and shiny and red, as if slapped, saw her toddler, dressed in an aquamarine one-piece swimsuit. She exhaled hard, as if trying to touch her daughter with her breath.

“What.”

“I’m hungry.”

The mother looked at her and at the faces of the three other children. Their cheeks were sunburned, their hair dried haphazardly. Derek was scratching the mosquito bite on his right shin. Mary was staring down at her barrette, snapping and unsnapping it. Casey had her hands on her knees and was bent over, looking at an ant making its way around an apple core browned and shriveling in the August heat. Laney repeated her plea, “Mommy, I’m hungry.”

The mother stood up and, taking her under her armpits, hiked the little girl to her hip. The water was an iron gray, crashing and roiling against rocks that had been smoothed over thousands of years in an unchanging agreement of tormentor and captive. The mother walked closer to the water, and Laney wiped some hair that had blown over her right eye from the rushing wind coming down the river. She looked at her mother, her cheeks red from the sun, her hair dried haphazardly.

“Laney, have I ever told you that I was a camper here when I was Derek’s age?”

The toddler was watching the silver water dance along smooth rocks and a big black bird fly down toward them from a reddish-brown tree across the river.

“No, Mommy.”

“Well, I was. I came here as a camper for eight years and then was a counselor. I wanted all of you to see this place. It’s very special to me.” She paused to listen. “If you’d like, when you’re a few years older, perhaps you could come to the kids camp.” She paused. “They have horseback riding and archery and many more things than we’ve had this week. Would you like that?”

The little girl nodded, as if dreaming about silver water and big birds and horses and being a princess. “I’m hungry, Mommy.” And she put her head against the mother’s sunburned shoulder.

“C’mon y’all,” she said, turning her eyes to the others. “I think the dining hall’s still serving lunch.”

The mother of six carried Laney on her hip with the twins and the 5-year-old trailing her. The older two would have reached the cabin by now and would be picking up their clothes. The whitewater hissed, the waterfall groaned, and the cliff trembled, forever poised to crash on the riverbank. The raven flew overhead and passed them, its silent flight an empty shadow of the chatter now beginning below. The family walked together along the dirt path, their slim figures disappearing around a bend.

photo: psd

The Terrace

I walked out onto the terrace just now and could see stars. Which was unusual in New York City and more so because I didn’t have my glasses on.

Metallic tiny pearls sitting atop the pre-war building to the west, on Riverside Drive, and to the east, over West End Avenue. Jupiter is soon to be its largest and brightest for the next 12 years.

Astronomy measures its major events not in terms of annual conferences, graduation decades from university, or even 50th wedding anniversaries, but in centuries, epochs, and eons. Nomenclature that elevates its events into one-time phenomena yet also leaves them as deceptively static, distant and therefore tiny accidents—such as a supernova, whose energy force can equal our Sun’s energy over the course of its entire lifetime, and which come to us as soothing 4-color photographs suitable as computer screensavers. Against many of these events, our world’s ignition would be like a match light in the mouth of Krakatoa.

This night there was silence, like a yearned-for commodity, brought on by the cooling late evening air, which had a soporific effect on the city inhabitants who had experienced oppressive summer heat. The blue jay that screeched its dominance over the sparrows by day was sleeping. The customary ambulance sirens—usually either St. Luke’s Hospital or Hatzolah EMS—were paused. It occurred to me that at no time this summer had I heard the baritone opera singer to the west or the soprano to the east, their voices in previous years having carried out to the block-long rectangular courtyard below as if it were an amphitheater and which often reminds me of the set from Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window.’ Did these two meet, get married, and move to a different neighborhood?

Yet tonight: silence.

The Chinese elms stood as silhouetted sentries before me and my neighbors, tall and serious and benevolent, submissive perches to the blue jays by day but eschewing their presence by night, driving them to their nests under eaves and rooftop water tanks, their leaves and branches in the light breeze whispering a lullaby to me and others who were up too late.

The canvas umbrella on our terrace filled in the breeze like a taffeta skirt as I collapsed it for the night. From outside I listened to the water gurgling through the coils of the air conditioner in our living room window.

The blue jay slept and, somewhere in the universe, the sky exploded.

photo: kris//