The Alberta Clipper
August 18, 1955, Hurricane Diane (not to be confused with Diana) ravaged Wilmington, North Carolina, killing 184 people, destroying 813 homes and damaging over 4,000 others, and leaving $754 million worth of damage in its wake. The effects of this terrible weather battering the east coast didn’t reach as far as Lincoln, Nebraska, where August 18th was a scorching hot day, at 97 degrees. Fifty-five years later, The Telephone of the Dead by Goldie Goldbloom appeared in Prairie Schooner. The story follows a woman who loses her husband in a horrible lightening storm and the husband who refuses to let his memory be forgotten. –Kara Cosentino
Marnie Gottfried's husband, Steve, had been dead for two weeks when he called her for the first time. She had just returned from Israel, hadn't even unpacked, was as unhinged and raw as she would ever be, and the telephone call sent her windmilling to a therapist. When she mentioned the telephone call to the polite little man, he prescribed something, but even after she was regularly swallowing antihallucinogenic chemicals, the calls continued. In fact, she got a three-thousand-dollar telephone bill, collect charges from an 800 service distressingly called The Telephone of the Dead. She didn't share this with the therapist, surmising— quite correctly—that he would think she was hooked up with some necrophiliac outfit.
Her husband had come home in a summer storm, the clouds boiling like a pot of scummy soup, his little Citroën pulling between the pines as she bent to wring out the mop in the kitchen. The lightning was directly overhead, had—in fact—hit the chimney again and fried the computer. She was growing tired of changing the surge protector, bored with the childlike scream the computer made when struck by lightning. It simply wasn't true that lightning didn't strike the same place twice. It had favorite places, places like their chimney and their pines, where it loved to run riot, cavort wantonly, drive deeply into the earth again and again like a serial rapist.
It was sensible of Steve not to try to make it to the house through an electrical storm. She peered out the kitchen window at the car, waved, but couldn't see a thing. The rain vomited down, uncon-trollable, the thunderous belly noises deafening, truly. She finished mopping the floor, dumped the water down the drooling toilet and was heating up the meatloaf when Steven opened the back door.
"I think I've been hit by lightning," he said, in an odd high voice strung through with glass. Freshets of water ran from his clothes onto her brilliantly waxed floor, and he held his arm out to her. On the soft, white part, just below the elbow, was a red circle, covered with a bunch of soggy tissues. She reached out to brush them off but he screamed, "Don't! It's my skin, Marnie!" The fur on his arm was gone except for a few shriveled hairs that turned to ash as she watched.
"I told you not to go out in a storm," she said. "I warned you."
He looked at her strangely, not at all with his usual obsequious good humor.
"I think I died," he said, cradling his arm and rocking slowly forward and back. He still stood, dripping on her floor. His hair noodled down his face and into his eyes.
"You're just being melodramatic," she said, "Put those clothes in the bathroom. You're ruining the floor. How did you really burn your arm? Starbucks?"
"No," he said, "Something hit me. I fell flat on my back. I was looking up at the trees, the rain all but drowning me. I felt some part of me lift up out of my body, out of my eyes, but I could still see the house and Polly in her crib and you. You were waxing the floor."
It gave her a jolt when he said that. He never noticed anything in the house. It wasn't even a good guess because he had no clue that she ever cleaned the floors. He thought they stayed sanitary through sheer force of will. He thought shirts arrived from the Garden of Eden, freshly starched and lined up in his closet, clinking and jostling to be first in line. He hadn't graduated from magical thinking.
"There was a bright light. I know this sounds like everyone else's story, people who almost die, but it really happened. I was pulled along toward the light, and I could taste things in the air. Colors. I don't know. The further I went, the better I felt—light and free and warm, so warm. By God! It was fantastic! I didn't want to return, but I felt myself being dragged backward. I bumped into my body, and a squirrel was scrabbling onto me, trying to climb onto my face. Out of the wet."
"Well!" she said. "How's that for selfish? You'd have left me and Polly and Ronnie just to be warm and free? Nice! Where's your sense of responsibility?"
He looked at her with deep loathing. Something squirmed across his face and ran down into his collar.
"You're the selfish one," he said, "Wanting me to give that up."
He pushed past her, imprinting his wet clothes on her cotton sundress, went upstairs, and slammed the door to their bedroom.
He didn't unlock the door or come down again until he went out for tests the next morning. The doctors claimed he would be fine, except for possible blindness. That he would live to one hundred and tell his grandchildren the story of how he had been hit by lightning in his own backyard, but he still hadn't spoken to her when he died of a heart attack three days later. Silly man.
"Darling," he said, on a Friday afternoon, the first time he called, and she knew it was him from the way his tongue skipped the r. It was a lucid dream, deliciously, comfortably real. Not worrisome at all. "Have you paid the pool guy?"
"Why did you die?" she asked, floating pleasantly, bobbing in the late afternoon light, jetlagged and shell-shocked and tranquilized within an inch of her life.
"Heart attack," he said, "I thought you knew."
"No, no. What I meant was . . ." What had she meant? Why did you leave me? I've been so angry that you wimped out of life, went AWOL. I needed you.
"Are you all right? Is it nice there?"
"Oh, you're wondering about the three-square-meals, roof-over-your-head kind of thing. It's not like that," he said, "But I'm feeling wonderful, better all the time."
She didn't know what to say to that. She was feeling worse all the time. Every day dawning with a newer version of pain laid out for her to try on. Even though he hadn't been a fully satisfactory husband, she had been used to him and relied on his company and help with the children. And he'd had a regular paycheck, was punctual with the bills.
"Where are you calling from? I didn't think . . . I thought . . . what kind of phone is it?"
"British," he said immediately. "Red phone booth. Smells like cigars and wood with a bad case of dry rot. Heavy old-fashioned black receiver."
And since she was dreaming, she hadto be dreaming, she pictured Dr. Who, beset by Daleks, purling through infinite space in a red telephone box. She was still laughing her new psychopathic laugh when he hung up on her.
The calls came often after that, always late on Friday afternoon, and there were many times when she was not in a drugged torpor, or dozing on the couch, or in a suggestible mood brought on by the death of a thirty-seven-year-old husband, and the telephone bill made it quite impossible to suppress the belief that this wasn't some delusional coping method cooked up by her more officious neurons. It might be, it was, real.
He usually called her late in the afternoon, when she was on the couch, reading, Polly napping in her crib, Ronnie not yet home from school.
"So, how was your week?" he asked, as flat and disinterested as the asinine robot voice that had guided her through the flight arrival times in Israel. She wanted to say it had been hideous, horrible, the Grand Canyon of desperate weeks, but can you say that to a corpse?
"All right, I guess," she said. "Polly's cutting a tooth."
She'd been dreaming away her days, but once night fell, her bedroom filled with cats in heat, chanting "Now! Now! Nauwooo!" Their shrieking filled her ears; she was deaf to all but the lusting of invisible cats, and she certainly couldn't sleep. Polly had been hysterical when she finally went in to her, a glaze of snot over her entire face, shuddering and juddering and rigid with misery. "What's the matter, Polly Wolly?" she'd asked, lifting the baby out of her crib. But her daughter had stared at her as if she had turned into a fluorescent midnight Medusa, and screamed piercingly, striking at Marnie's face and clawing at her eyes. In the morning, there was a sliver of ivory glowing in Polly's swollen gum, and a two-inch scratch on her own eyelid.
"Mmm," he said, and he may as well have said "Who's that?" His memory was cotton candy, fairy floss, things melting at the edges, and poor Polly must have been at the edge, a newborn memory with too few sticky strands spun around her.
"Your youngest child. A girl," she said, prompting him. Steve had brought Polly to nurse at night. He'd massaged the infant with almond oil, tracing circles on her heels with his thumbs. He'd carried her everywhere, draped over one forearm, like a butler's towel. The room slid by sideways, the sun darting happy summertime spears into her eyes. Polly was the baby who had slept between them for three months and kept them apart. Close. Apart.
"So, how was your week?" he asked again, and then, before she had a chance to answer, she heard him talking to someone else, a woman. "Just a moment, madam." Was he talking to her? When had she become "madam"? Her husband, Steve, was softly pleading with another woman, a kind of moan in his voice, and, dear God, it made her heart race. Had the Arabs got it right and fifty virgins waited for a good man in paradise? Was he, even as he spoke to her, being massaged, fondled by some unearthly nymphet?
"Steve?" she called, clutching the phone and willing her auditory centers to amplify those bleached sounds of climactic urgency.
"Excuse me . . . I'm talking to my wife. Let go!"
She heard scuffling, rustling, a crescendo of sound and was picturing imminent ecstasy at the hands or mouth of someone remarkably like Shula, her husband's sexy assistant, the one she'd made him get rid of, when a smoker's voice, a voice plugged with gravel and clay, totally unfamiliar, came boiling down the line.
"Mommy!" it drawled, "I ran away and was killed. You don't have to keep on putting my pictures on the milk cartons. You don't . . ."
"I'm sorry," she said, "I'm not your mother. I have my own little children. I'm . . ." and for a moment she couldn't remember her name, and only the sound of her dead husband's voice, begging in the background—"Marnie! Marnie! Let go, you harpy! Let me speak to my wife!"—was capable of reminding her. "I'm Marnie Gottfried," she said, "From New Haven."
"I want my mommy!" the thing wailed. "How does this stupid phone work?" which was Marnie's own question. It might be like black holes, or the Bermuda triangle, or conception. Subject to theories but difficult to prove.
"What's your name?" she asked the murdered thing, whose voice pelted her ears with gobbets of red clay and tiny bullets of granite. "Can you remember your name?"
But the girl, the murdered one, bayed, and there was a noise of beating leathery wings, and that awful wolflike howl, drawn out endlessly and magnified over the line, and once, in the middle of it, she heard Steve croak "Marnie?" and then a new voice said, "Who is this? Are you God?" This was a streetwalker's voice, still chewing air gum, still with traces of mascara in it. Behind this voice, she could hear her husband remonstrating with the murdered girl, and then there was screaming, a catfight in paradise, and things were said that made her hair rise; her tail, if she'd had one, would have been a liatris. When she could no longer hear her husband's voice, she lay the telephone back in its plastic bed and sat in her floral Queen Anne chair, as still as a corpse, until the room was utterly shrouded in darkness.
A week later, he was calling again.
"So," he said, "How was your week?"
"What the hell was that?" she asked, still bruised from the howling.
"What?" he said like Ronnie caught stealing a freeze pop. Incredulous that you suspected him of wrongdoing.
"The harpy, the whore, I mean, who's in charge of room assignments?"
"The boss, of course."
"Oh," she said, nonplussed. "That makes sense." She could have kicked herself. Nothing made sense. Nothing. "Why do you always call me on Friday afternoon?"
"That's when they let us out."
And this truly silenced her. Out of where? She didn't like to think of the possibilities when she thought of the others who stood in line with him to use the telephone.
Ronnie plowed through the summer, not looking right or left, no longer loving Mrs. Brown, the camp director, no longer talking to his friends, ex-friends, because they couldn't understand the for-eign language that came out of his mouth. His father had died. They knew that, secretly imagined what it would be like if their own fathers disappeared from the dinner table, and some of them — the divorced kids—thought they knew what it felt like, thought they felt the same wound running from the top of their heads to the seat of their spines, splitting them in half; the operation performed with a dull bread knife, the sawing, the hacking unceasing until they were divided. Yeah. They thought they knew. And as they passed him, some of them blurted the things their parents had told them to say: "Sorry" and "Too bad" and "He was a nice man" and "Where did the lightning hit him?" But mostly he was ignored and that was just fine. He wanted to finish circle time and pinch potting and banana boating, turn in his projects and get graded on what kind of kid lets his father get killed. He wanted— more than anything—to lie in the earth and stare up at the sky until he drifted up there too. Until his insides leaked out and evaporated, became clouds and rain and lake and ocean and clouds again.
This was all written on his face, and his friends avoided him because of it, but when he came home, Marnie held his hands, hugged him, washed him with the rough washcloth, sat too close, touching, touching, not letting go.
"How was your day?" she asked. "Anything special happen?"
Her words ran over him like water, meaningless. He slung his backpack in the closet and went to sit in the Citroën. She wanted him to see a kiddie psychiatrist, a Virginia Axline, a therapist with a sandtray, where he could bury little coffins and drive little Citroëns round and round plastic pine trees and torpedo his mother with Playmobil bombs right where she stood mopping the floor.
The gym teacher from camp called—a morning call, a call she picked up callously, knowing it wasn't Steve—and asked if there was a history of seizures in the family.
"I'm talking petit mal here," he said, "Eyelids fluttering, spacing out momentarily. Sound familiar?"
"Why?" she said, scanning the outrageous bill from the telephone company, a bill she'd have to argue: Israeli hotel, Middle Eastern long distance calls, the Telephone of the Dead.
". . . Ronnie on the floor."
She'd missed what he was saying. "That's fine," she said, not caring, "He's fine. We're all fine. Thanks for your concern."
And she'd hung up thinking they were fine. They were alive. It was Steve who had the problem.
In her garden, the next morning, with pads like monstrous mushroom caps strapped to her knees, she sunk her hands as deeply as she could into the rotting soil. A thin root ran past her fingers, like an underground power cable, and when she blindly touched it, she received the smallest shock. It was a dandelion spearing down, obsessive in its desire to take over the earth. She encircled it, tightened her grip and yanked hard on it, downward. The weed listed beneath the earth and she crowed. That was what it was like to be a mole or a gopher or a vole. Powerful. Subversive.
The phone began ringing, a ringing that struck her like an atomic blast, the windows of her home blowing out in fountains of glittering, somersaulting glass, but when it stopped, when she stood up to remove the fungal extrusions from her knees, the house was standing, the windows staring placidly at the sky.
Her husband's Citroën was still parked underneath the pines, and she wondered where she'd left the key. It would be like her to have buried him with the key in his pocket, but she couldn't really remember. Shrouds don't have pockets, and the Chevra Kadisha had been adamant about protocol. No suits, no glasses, no notes from Ronnie, no teddy bear from Polly, no kisses, no flowers, no music, no mirrors.
She had found a letter in the top drawer of his desk marked: "To Be Opened in the Event of My Death" and, at first, it seemed like it had been written by another man. No mention was made of her or the children, or their rented house under the trees, or his job with the Whiffle Poofs, or any of it, and she thought the letter might have been written many years ago, before they'd had children, and he had forgotten to tell her about it. But the paper was the heavyweight Crane stuff she had bought him for their most recent anniversary, and the letter was dated the day before he'd died.
He had asked to be buried in the traditional way, the religious way, with the assistance of the Sacred Society, and he wanted to be buried in Israel. He had bought a plot for himself, and an officious little yid showed up with the paperwork. She thought the man probably lived in the freezer down at the morgue, but it turned out he'd recently spoken to Steve on the phone and taken his credit card number and was only doing his job, delivering the deed. "Such a young man. How sad," he said, as he handed her the manila envelope. Karka in Israel, which sounded like shit in Israel but meant land in Israel. A tiny plot indeed, in the stony heart of the world. There was a slip with telephone numbers, names, the El Al flight schedule for God's sake. Steve had it all organized.
They'd never been religious people. Or, at least, she hadn't. She was no longer sure about Steve. Certainly they'd gone to a cocktail party on Yom Kippur the previous year, eaten treif in dozens of places. And now he wanted to be buried in Israel?
But she'd done it all. Followed his plans to the letter. Schlepped the casket to Israel on the plane, sneaked in at night to polish the simple wooden box with lemon oil—only to see the anachronistic shtetl Jews in their black polyester shtetl suits pry off the lid, lift out Steve, and lower his linen-swathed body into the crater. She had really cried then, seeing the Jerusalem rock pitched down onto his unprotected head, the ants already on the march, men from Invasion of the Body Snatchers rattling on in Hebrew. A heavily bearded woman had approached her and then muscularly ripped the collar off her best suit.
So the keys probably weren't in Steve's pocket.
In one of his first calls, she'd asked him why he wanted the religious funeral, but he hadn't answered. It mattered to her, though. She wanted to know.
"Steve," she said, "I had to go to Israel. My God! It's a third-world country. Always blowing themselves up. Polly and Ronnie stayed with Mom. What were you thinking?"
"Thank you," he said, "It's a relief."
"What is?" she said, almost screaming, almost scratching her eyes out.
"Being in the earth," he said, and she heard the dull clunk of the rock hitting his skull. "It's freeing."
"Oh, freedom," she said, "That's all you care about. You don't care two hoots for your family. It's all about you. That lightning blew your fuses."
"No. That's not it. The less there is of me there . . ." he said, slowly, thinking it out as he said it, her throat closing as she realized he was using "there" for the world, her world, her life, ". . . the more there is of me here."
And where was here, exactly, besides a British telephone booth that was definitely somebody's idea of a funny joke?
"The worms and the beetles and the ants, they're important; they nibble through what connects the soul to the body. Like being tickled. Like picking off a scab. It feels good."
She walked into Polly's room and stared at her daughter, wetly sucking her thumb in a real heaven. She held onto the edge of the crib and waved the telephone at the unhappy crawling things that swarmed from the walls. A different time, on a day when she felt stronger, she asked Steve about cremation, the designer label of being less in this world, and he choked. Gagged on her words.
"Don't!" he said. "It's murder," and he abruptly hung up.
He was a weak man, the kind to kowtow to anyone, bow down and lick the boots of the oppressor just for personal advancement, just to get ahead, and it revolted her. When they'd first come to New Haven, before they had children, he'd taken her downtown to see the Yale campus. It was a summer evening, and as they walked along, peering into the frivolous shops and admiring the very Englishness of it all, she'd felt she might be able to love him. She could force it out of herself, like a bowel movement.
Her mother's succession of flaccid husbands appalled her, convinced her that Steve wasn't so bad. That he must be lovable, if only for the way his hair became transparent when it was wet, a quirk that had entirely charmed her when they were dating.
But then they'd turned down an arcade, and a man—a security guard, she thought—ran up behind them and pushed them along, his hands on the small of their backs. "Sorry folks," he said, "I'm real sorry about this." He made them sit on steps at the blind end of the arcade, and she saw he was holding a long serrated knife, and his eyes glowed and spun like marbles, and he shook from head to toe with something she couldn't identify. This man, this criminal, was wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt and red high tops. "I'd hate to cut you," he said, as if he meant it, and she stood up then, behind Steve, ready to run or kick or bite or whatever was necessary to survive. Her husband's knees, she saw, were bludgeoning each other, his skin was the color of canvas.
"I need a fix, man, they're killing me here. They shut down all the hospitals. No one gives me a chance."
Steve had seven hundred dollars in cash to pay the movers, and it was a fortune to them then, but what the hell. Give the guy the money, she almost shouted. Almost kicked Steve in the back to get him moving. She wanted to get home in one piece, all her limbs attached. Steve took out his wallet and glanced inside at the thick bundle of twenties.
"I've got a twenty," he mewled, "but I need a ten for the baby-sitter. Will you take a ten?"
The man sighed and lowered his knife. "Damn it," he said, "I always get the Jews."
He took the ten and walked quickly away, and her husband, the man who had been playing with their lives, turned and vomited on her shoes.
"You know," he said, the next time he called, a humid afternoon full of greenflies and the shouts of children out of camp, "if you'd do something for me, I wouldn't be stuck here with little Lolita and a bunch of anal anesthesiologists. Flotsam."
She was probably flotsam. Or maybe it was jetsam. She could never tell which was which. Or maybe she was ballast. The heavy bottom of things.
"Pardon?" she said, "I thought you were beyond help at this point."
She laughed, the mirth of the anchor chain as it is borne down into the depths of the sea.
"Not at all. The scuttlebutt around here is that you can get pretty decent accommodations if you suck up to the boss. Shmear him a little. What say you light the Shabbos candles. For me."
Her mind boggled at the thought of shmearing God. Slipping Him a little bribe on the side. This really had to be a prank devised by some evil bastard down at the Whiffle Poofs. Or maybe it was those Skull and Bones boys.
"Marnie," he said, "Are you still there?"
"What?" she said. Religious coercion direct from heaven or hell or wherever it is that dead people hang out. It was unbelievable. Despite his sadly depleted state, he was still forging ahead with his pathetic plans for advancement.
On hot summer days, driving home from work, Steve used to wind up the windows and turn on the ancient heating system in the Citroën. He wore three sweaters and two scarves, a woolen balaclava, and a pair of rubber gardening gloves, and by the time he got home, his skin would be a bright, slippery purple, like the underside of a tongue. They had a claw-foot tub in the cellar, with a hose from outside hanging through the jalousie, cold water only. After parking the car under the pines, he'd come tearing through the house and launch himself into the tub. There'd be screams from downstairs as the water hit his skin, and eventually yodeling. "Great sauna," was what he always said to her when he came upstairs wrapped in a towel. "It's incredibly healthy for you. You should try it someday."
At the yoga class he'd given her for her birthday, when she was supposed to be emptying her mind of distracting thoughts, she secretly pictured what would happen to him if he was stopped by the police dressed in his woollies and his gardening gloves, the heater blazing. She'd willed it to happen, pictured it so solidly that it seemed inevitable that he'd be pulled over and wind up in jail for at least a night. Get the Breathalyzer test. A cavity search. And the police officers would look at her with pity when she came to bail him out in the morning and hand her the rubber gloves.
"How did you call me?" she asked Steve for what felt like the hundredth time. "What is it that you say to the operator?"
She rubbed her thighs, warmed her hands in her armpits. Lately, she could never get warm. Some vital internal engine had turned off. She pinned the phone to her ear with her shoulder and blew on her hands.
"I already told you," he said. "I ask the operator to put me through to my wife. That's all. Listen. Are you going to light the candles? It has to be before sunset. None of that after dark malarkey."
"Who is Ronnie?" she asked. "Who is Polly?" She paused, blew a single smoky breath into the ice-cold air. "Who is Marnie?"
There was a silence at the other end, and the wind strummed the invisible telephone lines, plucking a deep B-flat that sung through the phone and sussurated in the marrow of her collarbone.
"My wife?" he guessed, his brain gone porous, licked down to the stick, freeing itself a little more each day.
"Oh, Steve," she said, "Yes. Your wife. And your children." It was like being married to a victim of Alzheimer's who was locked up in some prestigious Long Island facility, making furtive phone calls when the staff wasn't looking.
"You'll do it?" he asked, still puffing around his version of the fast track.
"I don't know. Maybe," she said. "Listen, Steve. I'm just not into all that claptrap."
He began to give her the telephone number of the local Chabad House, where she could pick up a brochure of candle lighting times, and she felt her fingers tightening into talons around the receiver.
"No!" she shouted, louder than she'd intended. "Forget it. I'm not doing it."
There was a hiccup and then, loud and clear down the line, the sound of Steve crying.
"You don't really love me. You never loved me. If you did, you'd light the damned candles and get me out of this armpit."
It reminded her of when he begged for oral sex. "If you really loved me," he'd whined, "you'd swallow." But he'd cried then too. It was the usual way he gave her a guilt trip, to get her to do what he wanted.
"Oh, stop it," she said. "I'll think about it."
It was ghastly: a shade, a spirit, a dybbuk telling her what to do but offering nothing in return. So utterly selfish. It shocked her (although after the telephone booth nothing would ever truly shock her in all her long life) that the World-to-Come could be so base, so craven. And what was the deal with the telephone? A backdoor business line? They call out for pizza when the staff goes on strike? They call the riot police when the harpy goes canine?
She'd received calls now from Steve at Ronnie's camp and once at the gym and once when she was visiting her mother in Boston, so she knew that the simple request "Put me through to my wife" would connect them, wherever she was. Or he was. It was maddening. She'd never wanted a cell phone, that degree of connectedness feeling like an invasion. And yet, here was her husband, ex-husband, whatever, trailing her through the woods of her life like a bloodhound.
One particularly hot Friday afternoon, as she lay on the couch, idling, there was a miserable thunk, the lights went out, and the air conditioner stopped working. She went down to the basement to reset the circuit breaker and it was there, in the darkness, that she knew what was amiss. The power had been cut off. An image of the last five checks she'd written swam in front of her eyes, checks she didn't have the money to cover. Sweat crept down her back like an insect. Unless she got a job, she and Polly and Ronnie would soon be on a cat food diet. "Ronnie?" she called, climbing the stairs. "Polly? Who wants to go to Grandma's?" She found Polly asleep in her crib, splayed out like a starfish, but Ron didn't answer. "Ron? Ronnie?" she called, as she walked through the house, horribly aware that she had no idea where Ronnie had been for the past six hours. Since breakfast, in fact. Some mother.
She searched through the garden and the mildewed apple trees along the back fence. This is what desperation feels like, she thought. Mounting desperation. She glanced at the Citroën, still parked under the pine trees after its last unlucky trip. The windows were fogged up, a lopsided heart and "Daddy" scrawled across the windshield. Ronnie was in the car, slumped on the driver's seat, wearing his father's sauna clothes; the thick woolen sweaters, the scarves, the balaclava, even the gardening gloves. He looked like a potato she'd once exploded in the microwave, his mouth open and foam on his lips. "Ronnie," she said, gently shaking his arm. "Wake up."
The car was incredibly hot and moist. She pulled his arm harder, and when he still didn't move, slapped him on the backside. "Get going, Ronnie. I've wasted enough time looking for you already. I'm not going to stand here all day."
A humid breath stirred the pines and raised the hair on the back of her neck. "Ronnie?" she said again. The little boy had the keys to the Citroën in his hand, and she pulled them away from him, taking in the slow slide of his rubbery arm to the floor of the Citroën before moaning "Oh God, no." She shoved him over to the passenger seat and got in, started the car and revved the engine. "Not Ronnie. God damn you, Steve." At every red light, she leaned over and squeezed the little foot that had somehow gotten hooked up on the ashtray. He was breathing. "I'll get you there, honey. You're going to make it."
It was only when the policewoman was asking her yet again how Ronnie had come to be parboiled in a car, how he hadn't been noticed for so many hours, and why it was, exactly, that he was wearing all those heavy clothes, that she remembered another important thing she had forgotten: Polly, at home in her crib. "Excuse me," she said to the policewoman, who eyed her as if she was something that fell out of a vacuum cleaner bag. "I'm just going to dash home and pick up some pajamas." When the woman made a move as if to stop her, she added, "For Ronnie." The woman nodded but said, "If you're not back in twenty minutes, I'll have to issue a warrant for your arrest."
"Do you think it was deliberate?" Marnie wailed. "That I'm an abusive mother?" The policewoman stared at her and said nothing. Dear God, what would happen if she found out about Polly?
The phone was ringing as she pulled up under the pines, and she ran to answer it, afraid it was bad news about Ronnie, but it was only Steve.
"So," he said. "How was your week?"
"You bastard!" she screamed. "You couldn't call and tell me about Ronnie?"
"Ronnie?" he said, and she let the last good memory of her husband go, felt it slide out of her like his semen.
"Your son. Look. I'm too busy to talk right now. I've got to get back to the hospital."
There wasn't a sound from Polly's room. She had a premonition that the baby had died in her crib. She pictured the little girl strangled in the Mickey Mouse bumpers; smothered, face down, in her own vomit; her head caught between the bars of the crib. The silence chattered demonically at her nerves. But Polly was still sleeping, thumb in her mouth, a ring of mustard yellow baby poo on the leg of her onesie. It was oddly annoying to find her alive.
"I'm just checking," Steve said. "You have the candles, right?"
"I don't want you to call me anymore. I want you to stop this. It's abusive, it's . . . just leave me alone. Okay, Steve? Please. You have no idea what I'm going through."
"Did you speak to the rabbi yet?"
"Steve. Stop. Your son, Ronnie, is in the hospital right now. He's badly dehydrated, unconscious. I really have to go."
The house smelled like rotting flowers, like pseudomonas. The flowers that people had sent after she returned from Israel were still on every surface in their cheap florists' vases. Dead. That was the stink. The flowers were all dead.
"You're not going to drive to the hospital on the Sabbath are you?"
She came close then to using a word she had avoided her entire life. She could taste it on her tongue like a piece of wasabi, bringing the water to her eyes.
The next morning, she woke, blinking against the staleness of Ronnie's hospital room and the fug of Polly's breath on her face, hearing Steve's voice whispering over and over, like a dog snuffling at her heels, "Put me through to my wife. Put me through to my wife." Her brain stalled but then started with a roar. He was able to connect with her only by asking for his wife. She watched several cute young doctors and a gentle-faced middle-aged man walk by. Suddenly, they all looked like possibilities. Ways to get away from Steve. She inquired of a passing nurse if there was Internet access available for the patients, left Polly in the reclining chair they'd slept in, and trotted down the hall in her fluffy slippers. In the patients' lounge, she turned on one of the computers. The screen flickered, green letters sprinting across the abyss. She swiveled her chair to face the screen, typed in online dating services, and pressed Search.
Marnie guiltily read every one of the Happy Endings, peering at the faces of the men to see if they looked as if they might have a job with the Whiffle Poofs. If they might have been barbecued under some pine trees on a hot summer day. None of them did. They looked cool and scrubbed, like new cars in a dealership, still smelling faintly of plastic.
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Fall 2010)
July 7, 1983, in Lincoln was a scorcher. Temperatures reached 91° Fahrenheit; the month would go on to reach a high of 106°. But while the weather was warm, the political atmosphere was frigid: The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in the middle of the Cold War. Tensions on both sides were incredibly high and the drastic seemed possible. Within this climate, ten-year-old Samantha Smith wrote a letter to the Soviet Union's newly appointed leader, Yuri Andropov, seeking to understand the conflict. Her letter read:
Dear Mr. Andropov,
My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren't please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.
Samantha's letter was widely published in the Soviet Union, but when she had not received a response Samantha wrote to the Soviet Ambassador, asking whether or not Andropov would respond. On April 26, 1983, she received a letter from Andropov himself. The letter contained assurances that the Soviet Union was doing everything in its power to seek peace and concluded by inviting Samantha and her family to visit that summer. On July 7, 1983, Samantha Smith and her family travelled to the Soviet Union amidst the height of the Cold War. She became widely known by citizens of both countries as "America's Youngest Ambassador," and intermediary between West and East.
The Summer 1983 issue of Prairie Schooner saw the publication of "Intermediary" by Pattiann Rogers. The poem speaks of an intermediary of a different kind, but nonetheless speaks to the ever-present necessity and power-for-change of "intermediaries" throughout the world.
For John A. and Arthur
This is what I ask: that if they must be taken
They be taken like the threads of the cotton grass
Are taken by the summer wind, excited and dizzy
And safe, flying inside their own seeds;
And if they must be lost that they be lost
Like leaves of the water starwort
Are lost, submerged and rising over and over
In the slow-rooted current by the bank.
I ask that they always be found
With the same sure and easy touch
The early morning stillness uses to find itself
In needles of dew on each hyssop in the ditch.
And may they see everything the boatman bug,
Shining inside its bubbles of air, sees
Through silver skin in the pond-bottom mud,
And may they be obliged in the same way the orb snail,
Sucking on sedges in shallow water, is obliged.
And may they be promised everything in a single blade
Of sweet flag, kept by the grip of the elmid
On its stem, kept by the surrounding call
Of the cinnamon teal, kept by its line
In the marsh-filled sky, is promised.
Outloud, in public and in writing, I ask again
That solace come to them like sun comes
To the egg of the longspur, penetrating the shell,
Settling warmth inside the potential heart
And beginnings of bone. And I ask that they remember
Their grace in the same way the fetal bird remembers light
Inside the blackness of its gathering skull inside
The cave of its egg.
And with the same attention a streamer of ice
Moving with moon commands, with the same decision
The grassland plovers declare as they rise
From the hayfields into the evening sky,
I ask that these pleas of mine arrest the notice
Of all those angels already possessing a lasting passion
For find and dauntless boys like mine.
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Summer 1983)
June 30th, 1936, marks the publication date of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. Although today its reception is mixed—some still love it, while others find its controversial aspects more than troubling—it remains historically important, and if nothing else, it shows us the headway we’ve made as a society. “Shifting Winds” by James C. Kilgore appeared in the summer issue of Prairie Schooner in 1969, with the weather in Nebraska not surprisingly heating up. June saw highs of 99 degrees Fahrenheit. James C. Kilgore (1928-1988), a poet and essayist, worked in the English Department at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio where he was extremely active in founding new and diverse writing associations in and around the Cleveland metro area. He published several works throughout his life, and was named Ohio Poet of the Year in 1982. Kilgore’s poem acts as a reminder that our efforts to achieve overall equality and equity across diversity—while significant since the release of Mitchell’s classic novel—are still in progress. —Mariah Reicks
James C. Kilgore
In the morning I wrote in black ink a dozen poems
about ghetto children deprived of food and shoes
and a concerned city that sent one notebook
to six school children;
I wrote of black mothers fighting the ice of apathy
that rings my city’s slums;
I wrote of black men trapped in the hot, spiraling fire
of ancient hate;
I wrote twelve tragic stanzas of hope dying
slowly on the dark streets of my city’s slums.
In the evening I turned on the news:
I saw fires blazing black through ghetto streets
and no fireman’s sirens sang;
I saw shoppers leaving stores,
they trotted under glaring sun,
looked back from the shelter of low-brimmed hats,
and trotted on.
I saw a lawman kill a bare-footed black child
clutching a loaf of bread
and a pair of ten-dollar shoes
on the cold-noon streets of Newark:
I saw a black mother lose her eyes on Cleveland’s East Side,
And I saw her baby die
when a guardsman saw black
his silver trigger.
In the nation’s capital,
there were snow flurries
and shifting winds.
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Spring 1969)
Were you that kid who checked out the Guinness Book of World Records just to see all of the gross stuff people have done? I was definitely that kid! But though the middle-school appeal is less impressive than the most questionable activities, the Guinness Book of World Records also celebrates people’s great accomplishments. For example, Balamurali Ambati, an Indian-American student, graduated from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, New York on May 19, 1995, at age seventeen, to become the youngest doctor in history. Dr. Ambati is currently a Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Adjunct Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy, and Director of Corneal Research at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
It was a bright, sunny day of 72 degrees in New York City when Dr. Ambati was graduating from medical school, and it was 75 in the sunlight when Prairie Schooner was publishing the Summer 1995 issue ((though only 39 in the early morning hours!). A poem by David Citino titled “The Land of Atrophy” looks at one man’s struggle with his doctor’s diagnosis of cerebral atrophy and concern for finding a way to the grave news with her mother without her blaming herself. Citino’s piece—where “atrophy” ought not be confused with “a trophy”—neatly stitches together the disparate arts of poetry and medicine.—Dani Kerr
The Land of Atrophy
I sit before this keyboard
debating whether to tell my mother
in my dutiful-child letter,
along with granddaughterly triumphs
and devilishly clever meals
I’ve devised for wife and kids—
news to make her beam (so I
can see her beaming as she reads)—
the sentence from the MRI report
the doctor intoned over the phone,
a bone-cold, unthinkable thing:
“There is evidence of cerebral atrophy.”
Twenty-five years an adult; still
I worry. She’d take it personally,
remembering a day she worked
too hard, at or drank some thing
her Louisiana landlady-witch said
would twist the baby’s mind,
a night she loved my father
hard enough to hurt my head.
I could be inventing reasons
more cogent for yes or no
in this debate were my brain
not ceding territory, the M.S.
causing atrophy, meaning what—
my college Greek so far gone—
a lack of food? It is a hunger,
this damn darkness, lesions
like weeds: I’d been promised
a field of light to last a life.
I decided to decide about Mother
next week. I try to find a poem,
conjuring that remote country
of passion and panic I think I own.
Stars come out to stay.
A thing learned never leaves.
A mother is a young woman always,
starlight in her hair styled
from films that never fade,
seams straight on new hose
as she steps into clouds of steam
from a train just arrived
in New Orleans from Cleveland,
the handsome second lieutenant
surprising her from the side
with a breathless embrace,
a fist of perfect fleshy roses.
Wartime, but no one screams.
Such fervent caring, pairings.
There is no distance between
the alluring fictions our memories
can be and brutal truths,
between a poem of starry trains
and a letter of uninjuring love,
bone and the heart’s flesh,
a mind and all it can feel.
Prairie Schooner Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 1995)
April 21, 1977, was the opening night of Annie on Broadway. For the uninitiated, the musical centers on an irrepressible young orphan girl growing up in post-Great Depression era New York, as she searches for her parents with the help of a billionaire benefactor. Lincoln’s overcast skies and mid-50 degree F weather that day were grim indeed, but little Orphan Annie reminded the world through song that the sun would come out tomorrow. In spite of all obstacles, Annie maintains her youthful optimism, as well as an unshakeable faith in humanity.
Twenty years later, in the Spring 1997 issue of Prairie Schooner, David Ignatow’s “For Johannes Edfelt” was published. In the issue, which focuses on the voices of Jewish-American writers, Ignatow presents an adult who has lost touch with his faith in religion. The speaker notes the “contentment” he found in his religious childhood, and alludes to the doubt with which it has been replaced. The final stanza’s song that held his childhood might well have been Annie’s. —Mina Holmes
For Johannes Edfelt
I once had a religion to turn to
I listen to a singer singing
the prayer I once sang.
What I have now is myself,
looking at the trees and grass
that live out their lives
never in doubt
My childhood is in that song.
In contentment with my childhood,
I look skyward in curiosity.
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 71, No. 1. Jewish-American Writers (Spring 1977)
In the spring of 1959, the Dalai Lama fled the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, beginning a trying journey over the treacherous terrain of the Himalayas in search of safety. On March 31st, he crossed the border into India, where he was welcomed with refuge and asylum. Meanwhile, on that same day in 1959, Lincoln, NE, was hit with strong thunderstorms and high winds topping out at 20 mph while the editors at Prairie Schooner worked tirelessly on the Spring Issue, which included work by one of Nebraska’s own, Dan Jaffe. Jaffe has been a notable poet in the literary world for more than thirty years, but Jaffe made this Prairie Schooner appearance fifty-six years ago while working as a professor in the UNL English Department, with a poem titled “The Sweetest Journeys Home Are in the Mind.” This sentiment rings especially true in the case of the Dalai Lama, who ventured for fifteen days before finally arriving safely in India—not, perhaps, his home, but at least, a place to rest. — Mariah Reicks
The Sweetest Journeys Home Are in the Mind
The sweetest journeys home are in the mind,
Travels full and restful as they wind
Flowing to the moment of return
By banks that seem more green around each turn.
Those upstream days all curve in a long grin
That widens with each story to begin,
And rough-edged rocks embedded once in grit
Have become polished stone conglomerate.
Still, I remember wishing it be soon,
The impatience of a Sunday afternoon,
The station thick with travelers, soot, and flies,
I fled my fussing family’s goodbyes.
But now, in another city, days still drone,
A stir of bees around an empty comb.
So once again I settle in a train,
Reflections mingling in the windowpane.
Hello’s, goodbye’s, are only rituals.
They mist the shrinking summer into fall.
Sweep past the moist green fields, the structured stone,
Measure the miles that wither quickly home.
After the tears, the kisses, the shaking hands,
The recitations of unfamiliar plans.
All the forgotten hurts and dreams played back,
Upstairs in my room, finally I unpack.
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring 1959)
On March 17, 1988—a fairly warm day for Lincoln, NE reaching a high of 43 degrees—Carolyn Kreiter-Kurylo published her first poem in the Prairie Schooner Spring issue titled “Dream: Catching the Air.” In a poem of memories revived while dreaming, Kreiter-Kurylo fondly recalls how “Always before bed, / you read Light In August/ or Les Miserables.”
It was on this same day over in Europe that the world-renowned Les Miserables premiered its first full West End/ Broadway production at the Det Norske Teatret in Oslo, Norway. A production based on the novel written by French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, the play focuses on several characters’ lives, including Jean Valijean, a man working for redemption.
What a stirring, haunting bed-time story!—Alexandria Douglas
Dream: Catching the Air
I watch them lower you.
Each time in the night’s
thin hour, you tremble.
Your face, its gaze
once cold under lamplight,
struggles out of a seizure.
You raise your mouth
and breathe back.
Staying long in my dream,
you breathe air
into the mouth laboring
Out of a tremor,
you move, catching
air on your tongue
as if you might fill
This morning I place iris
on the bedstand, watch
them turn velvet
as first light floods
your room. Our summers
were life this: opening
windows to mountains,
honeysuckle reaching us
through mist. Afternoons
we wrote on the porch
swing. Always before bed,
you read Light in August
or Les Miserables.
“What one man wont do
to another,” you said resting
your head on the bedpost,
your voice steady.
Now each time you speak
To me in a dream, I wake,
my heart opening, and write
down your words.
For years I go on recoding.
This evening shadows
around me flicker, the house
dark. A candle illumines
your picture as a young
girl lying in a bed
of clover. Were you
your mother alive
in sleep? I lean
my head against a chair’s
back and doze off.
In a dream you rise
from the clover. Running
toward you, I extend
my arms, taking you in.
Again a seizure pulls
you down. You struggle
for air while moonlight
pours across the floor.
I wake wondering,
How long can we keep
the dead alive this way?
Until the skies darken,
The stars seem to say.
All these years you have
done it so well.
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Spring 1988)
The winter of 1998 is said to have been one of the worst winters in Nebraska. For example, on this day that year—as Prairie Schooner launched our Spring Issue—it was a balmy 29 degrees in the Nebraskan capitol, and it was snowing. It goes without saying that residents in Lincoln were wistfully thinking about heading south during those cold times. Somewhere nice and warm. A state like Florida. In fact, Florida became a state on this day in 1845. Though some at the time believed that Florida should be split into two different states, West Florida and East Florida, the territory was admitted to the United States as a single state. Congress and President Tyler agreed to welcome Florida and its wonderful weather as the twenty-seventh state of the Union on March 3, 1845.
Nicole Cuddeback’s poem dedicated to the “Sunshine” state was published in Prairie Schooner Spring 1998. Her poem titled Florida creates a collage of images that perfectly express the warmth and all-around daydream worthiness of Florida, the twenty-seventh state. —Dani Kerr
Melaleuca, Brazilian pepper, cabbage palm, Australian pine.
Rock oyster, bleeding tooth, banded tulip, pelican foot, coquina,
lightening whelk. Teeth of tiger and lemon shark, black in the loss
of fifteen million years. Home. Dawn-lit tendrils curling through
the iron mesh of a just-placed garden chair. Stand and sink
in the moist, haired ferns, mud. And there are hills – that don’t quite fit
like cypress knees heartened out like burial mounds, lumps in throats,
brief gashings of azalea through the low dips of wadded magnolias,
the crack in a word thought calm. Water, wind – but inland among
the little Etrurias, Rosewoods, cracked parking lots: something
swells the flat. Dirt’s response to tears? Hot weeds bent above overturned
bowls, giant ghoul bellies of brim. Who accounts for the spilled, swallowed,
for me evolved to this? One finger hung in the warm water, stuck
with knife groves of buzzing and palmetto, molten noons, the swim
on the distant pavement, evenings of lizard’s neon throats cast full,
gone in a wave, and always the heat, even in the foam that won’t
come in, on waves grimy jade ten orange as signs on closed roads,
finally black around the one crease drained by the moon – mounds both steadfast
and shifting: not mine, mine, the shame finger cooling, going out, always pointing off
where the wilderness of the ocean meets the smaller void of the gulf.
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Spring 1998)
It is easy to get lost in the Midwest mentality – the humility and neighborliness, the passion for a state or sports team, the sense of family and community – and forget that the rest of the country is out there with their own styles and attitudes. In his 1953 poem “A Visit to New England,” Jon Swan emphasizes the pride that follows travelers as they venture away from home and encounter those with predispositions towards their region. February of 1953 in Lincoln was warmer than usual, with an average temperature of 40.5˚ F, while New England suffered the same fate with temperatures in the 30s and 40s. At least New Englanders and Midwesterners have the weather to commiserate about. --Daley Eldorado
A Visit to New England
When I said I came from Nebraska
She looked at her vague shoes, down her invisible hose,
And smoke rolled from her nose.
She hardly paused but mentioned
(First her open lips on fire,
Then shut tight and pleasant as a wire)
That they sent their old clothes out there.
Oh, yes, Nebraska.
Then for a moment the old buffalo in me arose
Ready, as she crushed her cigarette,
To rush the insubstantial smile
That perished from the cold across her face,
Until I noticed while
She spoke, that she with all her high New England ways
Had brittle hands, a frost is stronger,
Hardly a wrist, and when she pushed to stand
Crumbled upward into shape, and then I knew:
Her clothes must have been rejected; returned too,
For she, without the rolling smoke of her nose,
Without the deception of her hose
Was nearly...but a lamp’s no sun
And there’s no swimming in her living room.
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter 1953)
On February 3rd, 1947, the first truck rolled off of the new Highland Park Ford assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan. At the time, the Highland Park Plant was the only Ford plant to be specifically producing trucks. The truck, Ford’s F-Series, remains North America’s best selling pickup truck to date.
In the winter of 1973, David Allan Evans’ poem “Ford Pickup” was published in Prairie Schooner. On that cool February day the temperature was 48 degrees Fahrenheit, a bit warmer than the monthly average of 40 degrees.--Evan Berry
David Allan Evans
call me the Valiant heading west on Fourteen into the frozen
Dakota January sun and the one suddenly ahead the red
Custom Ranger with Texas plates and his woman taking
their time and all of my eye as he sits straight and high
beneath a white Stetson nodding politely over frost heave
and she has my long my black my favorite hair with a ribbon
exactly the color of the pickup and feeling the cab’s air
and now she scoots his way and lays her head on this shoulder
while he adjusts his hat and sways briefly over the yellow line
so then as they talk her hands are a bird’s nest in her lap
to which the knuckles of his loose right hand are always returning
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 47, Issue 4 (Winter 1973)