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Creative Nonfiction Contest 2013: 4 Days Until Submissions Open!

"Fred Astaire's Hands" by Judith Kitchen
Author Judith Kitchen

Creative Nonfiction Contest 2013: Seven Days until Submissions Open!

 

By Alie Kloefkorn

 

For the past two weeks, we have posted essays published in previous issues, and will continue to do so until the contest deadline, May 2. Last week, we posted “Jicama, without Expectations,” by Maxine Kumin. This week, the essay is Judith Kitchen’s “Fred Astaire’s Hands,” published in the Fall 1997 issue, in which Kitchen chronicles a road trip intertwined with thoughts on mortality and sense of self.

 

Fred Astaire’s Hands

 

By Judith Kitchen

 

Clear days. Memory of weather. We're driving aimlessly west on 104, along The Ridge - a shelf of land about twenty miles deep that runs for over two hundred miles along the southern shore of Lake Ontario. The land here is flat, so flat that sky meets field with a slap. Illinois. Or Kansas. On either side, apple orchards tell us it is upstate New York. All summer we've watched: blossom, white headdress, nubbin, pale green moon. It takes a lifetime of learning to distinguish darkest fruit from darker leaves. The eye adjusts and suddenly there they are: brilliant, burnished red.

But now the fields are going to gold. Turning south on an unmarked road, we drive past fields of spent corn. Some farmers will cut their fields, leaving sharp stubble to poke through early snow. We'll hear geese, their wintry chatter. Others will let their fields stand as stalks turn paper-thin and dry to the color of parchment. If we kept going, we would cross into Livingston County where much of the country's onions are grown. Black dirt sucking in the light. Farther south, potatoes. But here, on the first Sunday in October, cabbage smothers the ground with that particular gray-green color - dusk-color of muted silk - that you can only refer to, when you see it somewhere else, as the color of cabbage.

These landscapes are not beautiful, exactly. They withdraw into themselves, sealed in silence like old men who know more than they will tell you. Even the prosperous farms sprawl across the land with a cluster of ugly sheds and rusted equipment. Raw umber. When you learn to love a land like this, you don't want to be fickle. You take your time, season after season, driving the back roads, letting them tug you forward into the mystery of where people settle.

Or they tug you back to the Southern Tier where you grew up in hills that stretched forever, into Pennsylvania and beyond, Appalachia beginning in your back yard. That's how far you've come: ninety miles north, to where the land is flat and boring. It took you years to do it - years and two foreign countries and several states - but now you're home. You know you're home because the sumac and milkweed pods and burdock feel so familiar you could walk out into the brush and climb back into the car picking off the sticktites of your childhood.

And when does the "you" - the person who inhabited that childhood - become the "I" of the present, the one who sits, now, in the passenger seat? Here she is, as the fields drift by. Here she is: here I am. But I am passive compared to the child who lifted and touched, who fingered the milkweed and let it fly. I open the window to let the cool air remind me of the day, the hour, the season we've entered, the one that's yet to come.

Suddenly we're bombarded by signs for tax-free cigarettes. Kools. Lucky Strikes. And a diner - at least it looks like a diner - called Sah-Da-Ko-Nee's. Of course we have to stop. Of course we have to discover where we are.

Where we are is the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, one of several small areas of land across upstate New York set aside for what is left of the Iroquois. Inside the diner (which the menu tells us translates to "The Eatin' Place"), the specials are listed in red crayon on a bulletin board. Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich for $1.95. Who could resist?

Who eats here? Look around. One man, dressed in a gray suit, green shirt, and bright purple bow tie, moves from table to table, talking to those he knows like any good politician. Another wears jeans, saddle shoes, army cap. A woman in her sixties with dyed red hair wears a Buffalo Bills sweatshirt over her white dress. Who are they in the rest of their lives? What do they think of us?

We are served by a woman with short curly hair. A permanent. Has to be. In fact, all the other waitresses have short hair too, though the men behind the counter (and those who come through the door marked "cigarettes") all have long hair in ponytails. The food is vintage 1955. Campbell's soup. Hot cheese. My grand- mother's sturdy black shoes. Her apron. Stan's lunch is more interesting, at least on the menu - "Indian Taco, with Fry Bread." It comes, heated in a microwave. Even the lettuce and tomatoes are steaming.

Outside, there are three black-haired children, each carrying a leash, trying to let three puppies out of their pen. The dogs push open the door and spew into the road in a yipping tumble of fur, children swirling after them. I catch one puppy, holding him until one of the children can hook a leash to the collar. Their mother stands on the porch above us. She does not say thank you. She does not smile.

Cattaraugus. Tuscarora. Tonawanda. On the map, these three reservations ring the city of Buffalo in space clearly delineated, set apart. On the ground, they are in the middle of nowhere. There is no distinction between here, on the outside, and there, where Sah-Da-Ko-Nee's seems to be the center of life. All I know is that one Sunday afternoon I am back in Painted Post and my grandmother Mayme has fixed a lunch of soup and sandwiches. Forty years have disappeared, swallowed by a landscape that never seems to change, for all the WalMarts and Kentucky Fried Chickens and aluminum siding and satellite dishes.

 

But everything has changed. Time proves that. Long ago my father fought the Army Corps of Engineers when they decided to move the Cohocton River, and then, years later, in 1972, the river reared up to prove him right. It plunged over the new highway built in its former bed and right down the main street, six feet of water in the old house on Hamilton - a house that had survived since 1804. It survived again, but not intact. They ripped out the built-in bookshelves, the dining room cupboards. There were the same blue goblets - on a new wide windowsill - sun streaming through, painting the carpet as though nothing had happened at all.

Funny, that landscape - yellow house, treed yard, hovering hills - is only external, at best a memory stilled to photograph. What lives inside, stirs and wells up in the least expected moments, is a field of poppies. English Yorkshire farmland with its dark stone walls, its green-glass fields, sky a fury of cloud. And the poppies flickering in the field. A moment of pure peace, contained, as in a bowl, though the only person in sight was myself. A loneliness so complete it felt like living more than one life.

Sometimes landscape settles inside you and makes room for nothing else. Each emotion is weighed against that inner scene to determine how it fits, whether or not it has a rightful place. Whole ranges of possibility have been discarded in the face of one flaming field.

Now it's early summer. Black caps ripen in our backyard. I pick them in memory of my father, his careful garden. They're large and unruly, falling into the fingers without resistance but leaving a stain like a bruise. The day is brimming. Heat shimmers up from the sidewalks and nothing moves. Memory itself is a stagnant pool, a pockmarked surface.

Easy to warp and ruin the built-in bookshelves. Harder to wash away the sound of my father's axe on a weekend afternoon. Chunk. Pause. Chunk. The growing stack of wood. His god was science - dispassionate science. He was the only person I have known whose daily vocabulary included the words premise and proof. I'm still learning how to say was instead of is. It's not yet a month since he died and he still comes to me in dreams as a voice on the phone. Sheer sound. A voice split and stacked against the cold.

The State Anatomy Board would like to express its sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Robert B. Randels and acknowledge our appreciation of the donation for the advancement of medical education and research study in Maryland. The gift of his body provides a legacy for the improved health of generations yet to come. On behalf of the Board and those medical programs, I would like to express our deepest gratitude.

 

He wasn't alone. The world will remember Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Sir Stephen Spender. Jonas Salk. Micky Mantle. Ginger Rogers. Ginger Rogers - her fluid body, flinging itself out into a life of its own, then drawing back again, following Astaire's lead. I've read that Fred Astaire was embarrassed by his hands, his too-long fingers. Who ever looked at his hands? All we remember is the feet, the perfect synchronicity of his polished shoes, a blurred landscape of metallic motion like a hummingbird at the feeder. Who ever noticed his hands, the two middle fingers pressed down into his palm so that only the other two pointed upwards, jaunty and optimistic, objectified and oddly self-conscious in the stilled shot where the dance stops in mid-air?

I am left with the singular first person, poised on the brink of knowing something about myself. "Hi there," he says, his voice brightening over the thin wire that holds us up. But it fades into voicescape, a sea of sounds, scarves I'm trying to buy for Christ- mas, a lost house suddenly sprouted in the middle of the night, darker than dream spun out of control. I know the dreams will fade, the voice will lose the clear, familiar tone. Inside, poppies will stir in a breeze I've almost forgotten, spring to wiry life in blood-red fists.

I suppose we all have something we think others will notice. Something we press into the palm of secrecy. But no one ever does. No one sees the baseboards the hostess scrubbed with a toothbrush. No one looks for the crooked tooth. What worries me is the other side of that thought. What is it we think no one sees that is evident to everyone but ourselves? I touch each bitten fingernail, listen to each grumpy note of frustration. Too obvious. Maybe it's the rough sole of the bare feet I tried too late to scrub each time I went into labor. The rough sole gone deep until it is a part of personality.

In my father's eye there is a river. It bends and twists for thirteen miles until, as the crow flies, it comes to a spot only four miles from his home. In the winter, he and his friends can hitch a ride on the runner of a sleigh for those four miles, hop off, put on their skates in late afternoon light and then head back, hugging the curves of the bank on ice that glints ahead of them. I look back for whatever it was he worried about, whatever he wanted to hide. But the road to his death seems so straight, so plainly marked. He signs his Living Will on recycled paper. He leaves us three thousand empty Styrofoam cups. He laughs out loud when his medical student first pulls back the sheet. "Mine has a red beard," he hears him shout.

 

How do you push past the imagined fact of your father's death? So many times he relished the moment in prospect that it seems necessary to let him relish it in reality. But in reality he will not know his medical student, will be nothing but whatever the body is without its fire. So you put it on the page, where it can live indefinitely. Something my father didn't understand.

My son William recounts an argument with his grandfather that lasted the length and duration of a 1,000-mile trip - about the meaning of the phrase "metaphorical truth." My father could not comprehend a truth that did not contain the words theorem, therefore, by extension - the gods of logic. How would he have internalized the latest scientific vocabulary, the way physicists now postulate without expectation of final results? There are other ways of knowing. Ways the word or image drills through the surface to unfurl beneath the skin.

Look at what Plath did with what I think of as my poppies. "Little poppies, little hell flames, / Do you do no harm?" "I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns." "If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!" July again on the page, but July tinged with the mad desire for the colorlessness of death. July brought to life in pain. Lucky I saw the poppies before I saw the poem. It would have changed them forever.

And even Plath could see the shifting nature of metaphor, the way it is true one minute and not the next. A truth to counteract dispassionate curiosity. By October she was calling them a "love gift." "Oh my God, what am I / That these late mouths should cry open / In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers." Does she open herself to the landscape?

Does she open her landscape to us? Where does the truth reside? Sometimes I think metaphor is the magic of electricity, flick of the switch. Some- times it's osmosis, slow seepage, transaction. July to October: day lily to marigold. Orange, tinged with copper. Rust. The flames are burning elsewhere, in a field in Yorkshire - a field most likely now a tract. Row houses, fenced yards, roses. Central heating. Mod cons.

It all gets lost in time. Or time gets lost when there's no way to share it. The other day, in the line for ice cream at Friendly's, a boy who said he'd seen the fireworks "yesterday - a long time ago." How long has it been since time was so fluid, so filled with space? The banks of the Cohocton grew wide as the water shrank to a shallow stream. Tadpoles. Slippery, moss-covered rocks. Stepping stones. Whole hours filled with the slow passage of water. Dragonfly wings. The way they sometimes catch the light, skittering iridescence over the convex surface. The sun dragging its heels over the sky, hot on your shoulders. Your hair wispy in the breeze. Your feet tough. How did you finally pull yourself back from the earth, retrieve your bicycle and pedal home? When did the leaves form their arch overhead, the street a canopy of shade? And where is your mother's voice, calling you in, past the potted geraniums and the yew, up the gray steps, through the heavy front door?

Nostalgia could make of anything the perfect moment, and those moments were only the fabric of the days, ordinary and incomplete. Metaphor completes the process. Perfection was saved for the screen where Hollywood told us what we wanted from our lives. Provided the perfect, carbon-copy metaphor. Not that you ever felt you could dance that way -the two of them in perfect pitch, as though their minds were in tune, not as though they had practiced and practiced, behind the scenes, off screen, day after day, to reach for this illusion. They did not so much personify desire as create it.

No, you never thought you were the dancer, but knew the dance could stand for something else. For what you feel when you watch the dance. Fred Astaire looks down at his hands and they repel him. They betray his inner sense of self, reveal him as gawky and adolescent. He puts one behind his back, or tips his hat, anything to keep people from looking at his imperfection. He presses the middle two fingers into his palm to divert the eye and make a visual deception. All he is conscious of is his hands; his feet do what they've been trained to do since childhood. His feet - they are so much a part of his interior that he never thinks to think of them. It's only his hands that flicker, tentative as dragonflies, extended between himself and the world he's al- ways wanted.

 

Judith Kitchen is the author of several books of poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as a novel. She and her husband currently reside in Port Townsend, Washington, where they are co-directors of the Rainier Writing Workshop. She also serves as a Contributing Editor for The Georgia Review.