Excerpt #96, Rocking-Chair Moon

Ebenezer
—Carly

Nancy Booker, the small headline
on the obituary page reads,
and my eyes reluctantly move
to the photo below of a fifty-ish,
dark-skinned woman with a halo
of salt and pepper hair and
cheeks that have slackened a little,
like the cheeks of a November pumpkin,
with age, and I’m not sure at first,
I don’t want to be sure,
but I can’t avoid the welcoming,
encyclopedic look
behind the rimless glasses,

and I know.

And I recall fifth grade,
and December coming, and the sound
of your warm, Texas voice,
excited, as you paced
in the front of your room
and announced our class’s
tremendous opportunity—

A Christmas Carol,
a wonderful morality tale by
Charles Dickens—
to be performed
for the entire school and parents
and grandparents and brothers and sisters
and blessed souls fortunate enough
to wander in off the street.

In a hushed voice,
you asked for volunteer actors,
and the hands of every single one of us—
twenty-seven—shot up.

Slowly, thoughtfully,
you called student names
and character names and paired them
in growing columns
on the shiny white board
with green and red markers and
your strong cursive strokes.

One by one, hands went down,
until only mine—
weary, propped up by my other hand and
stubbornness and hope—remained raised.

You paused.

My heart stalled.

Everyone would have a role.
Everyone except me.

But finger to your lips,
squinting in concentration,
you surveyed the whole room,
as if every hand were still raised,
until your chestnut eyes—
alive with mischief—
finally settled on my blue ones
—anxious, I knew.

You grinned—I won’t forget it
—and crooned my name
like a tuneful fragment
of a favorite hymn, and then you said
Ebenezer Scrooge with a flourish, and
my heart sprang to life.

It drummed a joyous beat.

Because suddenly I remembered Ebenezer
—the miser, the curmudgeon, the reborn,

the LEADING ROLE.

And amid murmurs and turning heads
and appreciative looks, I thought this—
this is the happiest moment of my short life.

Until I heard a voice behind me
that I recognized
as the voice of Michael Smothers
—Fezziwig—and his words
muted my heart’s song.

But she’s a girl,
Michael Smothers said to you.

Your eyes widened, as if you hadn’t noticed
that about me, and for a moment I thought
I would never forgive Michael Smothers for
pointing out my most obvious shortcoming,
but your grin grew
as you looked at me, then him.

Yes, Michael, you said. She is, isn’t she.

So I can’t forget that day,
or the days that followed,
of memorizing, and practicing my
Bah-humbugs!
into the recorder, in front of the mirror,
and rehearsals and costumes and
dress rehearsals
and finally standing on that stage,
reciting my lines perfectly, loudly,
deep-voiced, English-accented,
with EXPRESSION,
and taking my bows,
looking out at the familiar faces, proud,
a bouquet of red roses in my hand.

And the proudest face was yours.

A Late Afternoon Musing from Mom,
Taped to the Kitchen Window
—Carly and Ben

Have you ever sat at this window, sweeties,
and watched that pair of swallows
swoop and dive and gather
and return again and again
to the cool underside of the shed’s eave?

If you’re patient,
you’ll see them constructing
their little hemispherical cottage
twig by twig.

And later, but before the moon has finished
its pattern of phases
and positions in the April sky,
small heads will dawn
above the rough horizon of the nest.

If you watch the new parents,
their comings and goings
through May and June and
the heavy heat of July,
you’ll be able to imagine them in the skins
of their distant cousins, the humans.

You’ll see them fussing
over the downy heads
and yawning beaks,
ferrying food from sky and swamp,
standing sentinel against predators,
pampering and fanning and
giving flying lessons, private and group.

And you might wonder:
Do they avoid the scary news at eleven?
Do they worry about deadly diseases, war,
choosing the perfect preschool,
bogeymen, bullies, the SAT?
Do they seek the counsel
of Jesus and Gandhi,
Dr. Spock and Dr. Phil, Mr. Rogers
and Mr. Vonnegut, Dear Abby
and Dear Oprah, Ernie and Bert?

Do they shed small but bitter tears
when the months have slipped past
and the babies aren’t babies anymore?

Do they dread that late-summer morning
when their eager youngsters
perch on the threshold of the nest,
eyes bright with possibilities,
and spread their wings?

 

Woman’s Touch
—Ben

The two of us are cruising down I-5,
Grandpa behind the wheel,
pumped up because he’s finally talked me
into visiting his old alma mater,
this hippy factory in Portland
(just in case I change my mind
about Montana),
me trying to stay positive
because at least it’s another road trip for us,
him telling stories of his college years,
how he and Grandma met,
how beautiful she was,
and the more he talks about her,
the faster the car goes,

and as we enter a long, sweeping curve,
windows half-rolled down,
Grandpa waving a hand to emphasize a point,
talking louder over the wind noise and
Neil Young singing about blue, blue windows,
we spot—too late—
a State Patrol car on the shoulder ahead of us,
and Grandpa doesn’t even bother to brake,
he just races past,
helpless, helpless, helpless,

and we watch in our mirrors
as the trooper pulls out,
stirring up dust and exhaust,
and in five seconds he’s behind us,
lights flashing everywhere, and
Grandpa lets loose a few salty words
and slows and edges over
while other cars fly past, their drivers
no doubt grateful for Grandpa’s sacrifice,
and we stop and wait in silence
for the executioner,
but when the trooper’s door finally opens
behind us, I notice something,

and because Grandpa’s staring straight ahead,
muttering, I clue him in:
It’s a chick, I say,
but by the time my words settle in,
she’s up at his window,
asking for his license and registration,
and he can see for himself,
and I notice his back straighten,
his chin slide back in where it belongs,
and as she returns his stuff and he explains
that the registered owner
is his daughter—my mom—and that
we’re taking a trip to see his old college,

she bends down and looks in my direction
and asks me in a smooth, musical voice
if that’s right,
and it hits me for the first time
that she’s a knockout,
even in her funny, flat-brimmed hat
and funky blue polyester uniform,
that she’s trying to act all official but
I can see a bit of a smile creeping through,
at least in her eyes,
which are long-lashed and the color of sky,
diluted,
and for a second I’m tempted to tell her
that Grandpa stole the car and me,

and we’re heading for Mexico,
but I decide not to test her sense of humor
or tolerance for smartass kids, and
I tell her yes, and she asks Grandpa
if he knows how fast he was going, and
he guesses eighty, as if it’s a test question,
but she says Closer to ninety,
and I can see his fingers are trembling a little
as he puts his license back in his wallet and
hands me the registration,

and she must notice the trembling too,
because she gives him a full-strength smile
and touches his shoulder
with the tips of her well-manicured fingers
while asking
Are you late for an appointment?
But Grandpa, instead of taking her cue, says
Not really, just a little excited, you know,
to show off the old place to Ben here,
but he does volunteer, at least,
that he’s accustomed to driving
a ’62 VW bug—
his favorite inheritance
from his deceased wife—

and his daughter’s car kind of
got away from him, and he doesn’t think
he’s ever gone ninety before except downhill
with a tailwind and a full tank,
and from out of nowhere she laughs
and tells him he was supposed to say
we were late for an appointment,
but she’s glad he was honest,
and for the first time Grandpa smiles,
and I see a special glimmer in his eyes
I’ve never noticed before,
and the lady cop says to keep the speed down,
there are more troopers ahead,

and with her fingers still resting
on Grandpa’s shoulder,
she looks at me and tells me
she’s heard it’s a great school,
and she gives him another smile and says
Take care now,
and walks back to her car and roars off
with a wave, and I study Grandpa’s face
as he turns the ignition key with fingers
that are a bit gnarled and lined
but no longer trembling, and I decide
that while he’s still for sure
looking forward to the college visit,
he’s maybe just experienced
the highlight of our little journey,

and as he checks his mirror and
steps on the gas and we zoom away
from the last traces of his fading, fleeting,
roadside attraction,
he looks over at me and gives me
a wily wink, a sly smile,
and I know I’m right, and I figure this trip—
no matter what happens from here on out,
no matter how bad Grandpa’s old school sucks,
how loud he snores in our room tonight,
how much senior rock
we have to listen to between here and there—
is worth it all,
it’s worth every minute.

 

Choosing
—Carly

Ben left no doubt he didn’t want me
tagging along with him
to whatever college he picked,
but at least he was nice enough to recommend
Grandpa’s old school,
which according to him turned out to be
a perfect place—for me—
and according to Grandpa the perfect place
for anyone interested in broadening
her horizons—me again—

so here Mom and I are
on a scouting trip to Portland,
a city with some welcome reminders of home,
on Grandpa’s old campus,
and even though I was prepared to hurry back
and tell Ben he was all wrong
and Grandpa he was out of touch,
that they don’t really know me after all,
as we—Mom and I and
our motley little tour group—

join together in the excited chatter
of anticipation
and walk the shady paths and wade through
the puddles of sunlight,
warm and inviting,
I feel myself willingly slipping into this place
and its character and characters,
fitting in snugly,
like a jigsaw-puzzle’s long-lost centerpiece,
freshly discovered holding a place
in a volume of Robert Frost’s poems,
marking the one about
taking the road less traveled.

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