While I lay in the bed singing Christmas carols from the old songbook, Bug draws. This elaborate little world is his latest creation. He stops me before I kiss him good night so he can explain all the elements of his picture.
Conveyor belts rolling down from up in the treetops carry suitcases to the inhabitants below. The suitcases have “all the things people need, like food and hammers” for underground life. The dude on the right sitting under the tree is fishing from the subterranean spring that runs along the bottom. His catch is stored in wooden storage boxes up above, and the conveyor belts ferry fishes down when people need food.
The ladders help people and dogs and cats go up and down, too. There are also slides. The little dwelling on the bottom right is a dollhouse someone built so the kids have something to play with down there. There is a kitchen for cooking. The brown stuff is the soil, Bug explains, and tunnels through the soil are for the worms. The guy fishing uses the worms for catching fish.
The skull, bones, and wishbone in the middle of the brown patch are remains of a deer skeleton decomposing in the earth, which Bug put in to show that this whole place is “way down underground.”
You know what gets me? Every single inhabitant of this bunker is in a state of perfect bliss. The fisherman, the cats, the children: all happy. The dudes schlepping suitcases are grinning. The fish swimming in the spring and languishing in their boxes are wearing smiles. Even the dead deer is content with the situation.
Predator, prey. Worker, player. Compost, bloom. No matter where anyone lands in the tableau, happiness is an option.
When the horrible thing happens, seek redemption in offering a small kindness to someone whose name you’ll never know.
He kneels before me and lets rain wet
his head. The fire is cold. Candles remain.
Three flames. A ribbon of smoke
tucked into his cheek. I do not need
to look for it. He says I’m learning.
The sheets are the red of damp
brick dust, I lay stiff there, safe, no distance
greater, no sinking
my hands on curls and scalp,
three flames coil into locks, eyes
reflect the blue-red chili pepper
balcony lights, trees caught
halfway through their undressing.
It will never be winter here
again, no snow will blanket the gully,
no deluge to scour clean
the skin. We live packed in
tins three flights up, no place
for monsters here so we find them squatting
in the drywall, squirreled between
ribs, under the tongue,
the brimstone there, the ember
still alive. He takes me
for food. Sits next to me in the booth.
Orders salt on the rim. It is the last
drink of my life. The lime
sinks. The paper black bottom
of the jalapeno glistens as he lifts
it to me. Crisp skin and grease,
I wait for the burn, refuse to ice
the heat as it sears wet flesh. He presses
his mouth to my forehead, my oiled lips. We are not
in love but we swallow it
whole, barely chewing anymore. He kneels
before me without moving
one inch. Supplication
in the angle of his cheek, prostration
in his kiss. He scoops up brown beans
glistening with bacon fat. Holds the spoon
to my mouth. Somewhere
outside, stars burn the summer
December sky. Ducks still dip
and split the ponds. The creek still gushes.
We stop on a bridge and cast
shadows over stone. It will never be winter
here. He holds my waist.
We are not in love.
We are lit by a half
I can’t remember the last time a bedtime book made me giggle so hard I could barely get through it. Bug kept asking, “What? What’s funny?” When I tried to explain, I just laughed some more. Then he was laughing and he didn’t even know why. We romped and rolled through a summertime back yard with no idea we would spill out under the moonlit Yes. When I reached the end, I caught my breath and felt my throat clutch. Sweetness alive! Marla Frazee knows how to tell a story. This little book is a winner.
A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, by Marla Frazee. Harcourt Books, 2008.
Sure, it’s been around since 2008 and you probably have already worn the cover thin from reading yours so many times. If you are like me and a little behind the curve on such things, then it’s time to track down a copy. Go share it with someone you want to make smile. There is a good chance that anyone who has ever had a grandma or grandpa will do exactly that.
My son is standing at the kitchen counter with a handful of permanent markers and a stack of recycled paper. The brush in my hands works its way through his golden hair. The tangle in the back tightens like the fist of Christmas lights we threw into the corner after 30 minutes of trying. The smell of spruce clings to the morning.
Bug continues on a picture of a golf ball factory he began last night. His running commentary distracts us both from the small knots yanking at his scalp. “This bin is for one color, and this one for blue. They get sorted into the right boxes, and here is where they go if the wrong color is in the box. Ow!”
“I’m sorry, baby. I’ll go slow.”
He fills the page with tiny circles, long funnels, and snaking tubes. He writes the words “picker” and “golf ball tools.”
When we were decorating, I managed to pick apart one fist of lights and unfurl a string to adorn the tree. When I finished, I hooted and cheered. “Perseverance pays off!” I hoped this would make us all forget about me tossing the other strand aside and declaring it hopeless.
Bug leans close to make a thin line on the edge of the page. My hands follow his arc. I separate the twisted locks at the base of his skull one snarl at a time. The brush barely moves yet its work is relentless.
“I am going to be an engineer,” he tells me. “Not the train kind. The building kind.”
“Yes, you will, baby. You can build anything you see inside your mind.”
“I know, Mom,” he says.
Good. I lean in and kiss him on the damp head. He barely registers me. He is too focused on crafting his vision one perfect circle at a time. Let’s keep it that way.
Inside the gray morning, a storm churns. No one looking down from a weather balloon would ever know. Calm skies lay a low blanket of mist over this patch of concrete. Upstairs, my boy dreams on. He will wake on his own and climb into my arms so I can carry him down to our waking day. For this singular pleasure, I continue to press my weight against the porch step. I jump skyward straight up from a squat 20 times over, roaring past my own screaming heart then begin again once the stars dim.
Inside the neighbors’ homes, small thunderclaps fall on deaf ears. Who would know? Secrets, stillness, fury, love. White lights twine around poplars and oaks dotting the unfenced green. In the low dawn, other women walk their dogs at a racer’s clip or jog in nylon sheaths. I wonder who these people are. Even the ones whose names I have learned over wine and block-party gossip are exotic, sleek-billed things. They married the ones who became captains and commanders. Very few of wives themselves hold such sway. They feather their nests and pine for more yet seem to possess a knowledge that eludes me. Gloss and curl, breast and fawn. Perhaps just dumb luck? Whatever the code, I have not cracked it yet. I rely on pulse and sweat. I bend and crunch my belly, powering the core which sustains me. It is, after all, the only one I’ve got.
Next door, the couple stands bickering over the placement of a red bow on the new porch light. She wears the teal track suit, he the familiar scowl. The stout pillars of their new portico twinkles with lights. Their long-legged girls soar past on in-line skates, hair swaying. The silent distance of proximity has me hungering and recoiling. What quiet thunder brews there? Any? None? They have lived here since the girls were toddlers. I have never seen the inside of their home, yet I long to inhabit it, whether it be the shelter or the storm.
I lunge 50 times on my patch of damp concrete. I get to 51 and keep going. Past 75, past 100. These thighs will never fail me. I will climb the stairs. I will scale these walls. I will leap over rooftops, up past the front that taunts us with its constant pressure and threats of deluge. Up into clear skies this surging heart will carry my boy and me, winging us into the place we are meant to be.
Train platform, new friends (hello! hello!), young boys not much older than my son approach me to shake my hand and say, “Nice to meet you.” I am so stunned I almost forget how to respond. Metro cards, turnstiles, find a car. Kids spin around the metal poles, “Sit down! Sit still!” It does not work, they are all maps and windows and new new new. The littlest ones cry, both wanting the window seat and the seat next to daddy. Once we are zipping along, tears dry and the traffic, tracks, sky, tunnel mesmerize.
Then, up onto city streets. Dusk. Lights, crosswalks, thousands of cars. “Stay close! Stop at the curb! Don’t run ahead!” The boys slam into each other, their bodies pin-balls pinging between Pennsylvania Avenue office buildings. The caravan growths thin as it stretches down a city block. Two boys race ahead and we lose sight of them between the looming wall of strangers. The dad carries his young son far back, his daughter in the bubble-gum pink coat bringing up the rear.
Then, it is giant tree. White House in a golden glow. Crowds, bustle, tiny trains, throwing coins into open freight cars. We lose one another, gain an additional mother and daughter, lose her, re-group. The little ones and the big ones all press into the fence, sharing snacks, all learning and then forgetting names. The girls ask their mother for pennies. Another round of coins until we all stop digging into our wallets. The kids throw clumps of grass. The state trees arc behind us and we find the ones we know. Rhode Island, where one went to culinary school. Texas, where one will spend Christmas. Then we see Virginia and we all crowd around for a moment, squeezing our way in.
We break free of the crowd’s tight grip and weave our way down the streets again. Up the stairs and onto Freedom Plaza’s deep breath of open space. Up past the marquee lights of National Theater. No one remembers what is here anymore, no one spends time in the city. Where will we eat? All around us, hotels, glimmering brass. The Willard. The Washington Marriott. Lights, doormen, black hired cars. We gamble on distant memory and hoof up 14th street. The Shops at National Place offer up a bakery with a kids’ menu. Sandwiches, fruit cups, chocolate milk. Slump, hydrate, chat, color, wait wait wait and then eat.
Back out into the night. The metro again, the front car now, kids take turns peering through the dark glass at the curving tunnel ahead. We peek our heads out at the station stops and wave at the conductor who grins and winks. Girls pour their tiny toy animals onto the vinyl seats. Boys wrestle. “Stop that! Gentle hands!” The parents talk more. Who is in school, who lived where, whose kids like which sports, instruments, books. Have you decorated yet? Where will they be for the holidays? With dad? With you? Half weeks, split Christmas, alternating years.
At the final stop, we all wait at the turnstile. No one in this crowd is left behind. We only just met, and already we are each other’s fierce protectors. For one sparkling night, we barely-friends are one tribe.
“Mommy, do you know Mozart?”
I am pouring oats into the boiling water. “The cat or the musician?” Our long-ago pet’s musical mrawr? earned her the moniker of the great composer. The resident felines ran her off when we moved here in 2010. Bug only remembers the cat from stories and pictures.
“The musician,” he says.
“I’ve heard of the guy.” Stuffing the snack in his backpack, I tick off my mental list of tasks. The clock is inching towards 7:45. The pan on the stove is beginning to froth.
“Did you know,” Bug says, “that Mozart wrote all those songs when he was so young?”
“Yeah? Tell me.” Stirring in the brown sugar.
“And do you know Beethoven? What’s so funny?” He starts to chuckle. “He couldn’t even hear the songs while he was playing them!”
I am so in love with this county’s schools. “Did you know,” I say, “that I was listening to Mozart just last night while I was making the beef stew for dinner?”
“Yup. And there is a CD right over there in Grandma’s CD player that is all Mozart.”
Bug’s eyes widen. “Really?” He slips down from the table and turns on the player. He starts to scroll through the tracks. I finish pouring the hot oatmeal into a container for the car. He listens to bits, chords, the opening swell of Eine Kleine Nachtmusic then moves on. I gather drinks and school bags and keys.
Bug stops at a piano concerto and waits. Suddenly, he bounces up on his toes. “I know this song! I know it!” He lets his hands fall on top of the CD player and he peers into, listening hard. I seize this chance to spray the rat’s nest at the back of his head with detangler and work through the golden knot with a brush. He barely registers my presence. The notes rain down around us.
Halfway through the piece, Bug hits the back button so it begins again. He glances up at me as I shrug into my coat. “I know this one, Mommy,” he says again. His eyes are sober.
“Yes, baby. You do. That’s your song right there.” For a moment, we are both still.
Listen well, kiddo. Keep those ears open. Every song is yours. Every lyric, every splash of color, every rusted cannon, every story. The departed ones passed through this place in a breath and left nothing but their bits and strains. Except for a few, most of the names are gone, too. Now, it is yours. All this world, for you.
The other Mozart:
The crows lift off
from the bare branches,
a wave lifting
a blanket in billows,
caw atop caw,
scratching black marks
on a day not yet begun.
They arc to the left
lost to the next stand of oaks
land, a beat
and a half, feathers edge
against limb and beak, the space between
their calls slow
but never stop. Never still,
the sky, they cast off
knit purl knit
wing under and over
somehow they do not tangle
but turn back to alight
on the dry fingertips above
where they began
tightening the circle
to a knot
refusing to give way
to the dawn.
Twice today, all the clocks in the universe vanished. On both occasions, this occurred while I was writing. Once was at work and once at home. Someday there will be no difference between the two, and someday I will forget I once knew how to tell time the way I forgot the French I learned at a desk in middle school. Once, I only knew the Is, and that was before the idea of me, the idea of time, the idea of such a thing as “idea.” It was before description. It was when I was inside of that Is, and even though quite alive, not yet even born.
Some days, the capricious universe chooses to bless me. I forget everything but that language which wasn’t even language. This is where we begin and it is certainly where we end. Eventually, we all revert to the first tongue. It always eventually draws back into silence our best attempts to speak new patterns into existence. Today, it was a death of all I learned. It was awakening. It was bliss.