Excerpt from “The Circus Train”…
Ever since the chemo leaked, your toes have had no feeling. So start there. This is the beginning. Eternal. Cold. A dizzying loss of balance.
In Samuel Beckett’s Company, memory persists. A long walk up a hill, holding his mother’s hand. Until she drops it. But still, he returns to that moment, again and again. The walk. The hand.
There’s something I have to say about the good properties of metastasis. It’s certain. There’s no backing out, so you are forced to accept. It’s a little bit like that column of dust in the old Westerns, far in the distance, but announcing its presence as it takes its interminable time coming closer and closer until, suddenly, there it is with a shape and the horse gallops up hard in your face and stops still, all lathery, and you know you are just about to hear some news of some sort. From then on, it’s all first person. Or sort of.
Mid-May. The apple trees in the yard behind our house have blossomed so that, waking, I look into a sea of white clouds. I could go back to apple trees, the peculiar branchings that make for good climbing, my mother’s voice calling me down. Instead, I see a young girl alone, crouched on a hot day in early June, sifting the dirt of the strawberry patch. Each runner shoots out its individual white flower. Tiny, tinged with pink. But I am intent on the sifting, the sun a poultice on my neck, warm and filled with silence. Each ray streaks upward toward its source. In front of me, a soft pile of sifted dirt, silken, the texture of talc. My hand smoothes and smoothes it, leaving little trails of fingermarks. My hair pulls loose from my braids and makes a haze of sunlight around my head. The breeze is softer than the dirt, like a finger brushed over the forehead. I do not remember what I was thinking, but that I was thinking. Alone with my thoughts. With the dirt and the breeze and my own sense of self that did not disappear with my mother’s call.
I am sitting up in bed and the dark is palpable around me. It breathes in and out, a faint echo of my own heavier breathing. Not quite a wheeze—more like a sigh, each breath holding an almost audible sound. I am awake from a dream in which I have informed my mother—who was, as usual, being secretive—that I was going to leave if she wouldn’t admit that I was going to die. This feels like an important dream, and one that I will probably have again. So I am sitting here in the dark, reliving its details, reliving, in short, my life.
The walk. The hand. One detail, over and over. As though his life could be summed up.
I remember too much. Not everything, but enough that it feels like dredging up the past in all its textures and colors and odors and sounds. What was said, when, why. The table, with its jumble of plates and silverware, his hand reaching but still, my eyes full of tears. They wash over me now, thirty years later, more, and still the words remain unsaid, and still I hear the chatter of the other people around us, the seemingly incredible lightness of its being. And still, even after all these years, I wish it different, wish to hear it unfold in some other fashion, wish for my life to have branched out from that moment—which of course it did, just a slightly different branch of a slightly different life lived in a slightly different way because of what did not transpire.
The sun is a shawl. A smattering on the arms, making them smart with the wildness of July. But this is June. The dirt is the soft shade of shale, of fallow fields after wheat has given over to stubble. The strawberries themselves are still to come, but the blossoms persist, white stars along the runners that weave over the interstices between the rows. Cut through—shortcuts, like dendrites—to other worlds. This is the place where memory begins.
Or does it? Because I have earlier memories—vivid, narrative, filled with action. I remember the pink and white dress, the black Oldsmobile with its running-board, the men from the CO camp,* the snake they killed and threw onto the fence where it withered in the sun, the cows lowing in the Erwins’ barn, the clank of their stanchions, the mossy underside of the woods where sometimes we found a jack-in-the-pulpit hiding discreetly among the leaves, my father’s trusty three-speed bicycle, the stab of pain in my broken collar bone, the careful inching out as you walked up the seesaw and then the sudden whoosh as it tipped, hurtling you down again to another beginning. All of these are before, but all of these happened to me. In the strawberry patch, I was the one making things happen. Especially in my head, my thinking, my careful tune of a thought.
I wonder, will that be the last thing to go? For so many people, thought goes first, and they live out the remainder in a haze of happening. What day is this? Or, who called? Did you say you called? What is for dinner? Do I like that? A confusion of time and place and incident. But I will be young—younger—and my mind intact. So will thought be my solace, or my curse? I have relied on the brain—its tickings and tockings—for an entire lifetime. Can I trust it to take me easily into death, or will it resist, fighting the body until the bitter end?
I looked up, and there it was—the little circus train winding through the valley. But was there a valley? I don’t remember that there was. There were cornfields, and beyond them the woods. And the river on the other side of the road. But I remember the train, far away, while I was sitting in the strawberry patch. It must have been another time, another place. But there it is: the blue and yellow and lavender cars following the tiny plume of smoke, rounding a bend, suddenly emerging from a string of trees, making its bright way across the horizon—well, not horizon, but the landscape below it, pulling the animals and acrobats and jugglers from somewhere to somewhere else. I see it so clearly, almost seventy years later, and still there is doubt because I see the house, the apricot tree, the strawberry patch, and there is no room in that scene for the little valley with its tiny chugging circus. I knew what was in those cars—the clowns with their floppy shoes and the wrinkly elephants and the magical tent. The tightrope walker, his suddenly humdrum gravity. Knew it so well I could worm my way inside to discover the smell of straw and the sound of fatigue. Knew, even then, that it was hard work, bringing their magic to children like me. Work, and disappointment, and the heart lifting a bit as the little train passed over a bridge, leaving the valley behind. So where . . .
Memory serves her well. And yet here, caught on the brink of its own oblivion, it deserts her at a crucial moment. That train has lived in the folds of her brain for well over half a century, and only now, when she wanted to write it down, did it disappear into ripples of doubt. She sees it now, the noisy engine silently pulling through the distance of her dream, and the colorful cars painted in reds and greens and pastels, a moving rainbow that seems, in memory, to blend with the silken dirt and the smell of impending summer and her fifth birthday looming. This was before the flood, and the valley was opulent, new corn coming up, and the river a strip of sunlight flashing on, then off, as she moved her head.
It was Beckett who said, “Fail again. Fail better.” That’s about as optimistic as he gets, and if you think about it, that’s fairly optimistic. It carries something more than his usual view of human nature. If you can have a “better,” then failure isn’t as failed as all that.
He held my hand across the table, but his eyes looked away. He held my hand, but it was as solace, not as entreaty. Oh, I remember other times, his hand reaching for mine, tipping the wine into my lap. Laughter. But those were later. And they could not—quite—erase the moment his hand held nothing for me. The way his touch was more than I could bear in its absence.
Was the train in a book—a picture book, so that its colors persist as though they were trailing each other across the page? It could be. Books were that real. But I was sitting in the strawberry patch, with only my eyes to take in my red-and-white-striped overalls, my bare feet, the white confetti of the blossoms. Picture perfect. Except for the valley that didn’t exist. But it did exist, because we lived there. Nowhere to look but out. And up.
So where . . .
My Aunt Margaret clacks her castanets and sings, her skirts moving like water, her dark hair piled on her head and held with the stem of a flower. A red flower. An orange skirt. A blouse embroidered with blue and yellow stitching. She has just returned from a year with the American Friends Service Committee in Ecuador and Guatemala. She is singing in another language and the notes wrap me in their gaudy sounds and the castanets chatter. Aunt Margaret is back, and even the house seems to quicken its ears with her laughter. She stamps her feet, Ta-dah, with an emphasis on the dah that leaves an impressive silence in its wake.
White house in the valley, on River Road. White house with a garden. And the woods beyond. Woods where I learned the oily scent of wintergreen. Its stringent aftertaste. Its red berries in winter. Patch of woods bright in my mind, my father pointing, saying over and over the names for what we were seeing. White house. River Road. Chemung River. Erwin’s Dairy. Holstein and Guernsey. Strawberry. Apricot. Lady’s-slipper, pink inside pink.
And then we moved. The names changed. Hamilton Street. How did a street differ from a road? Well, the road moved on, wound through the contours of landscape. The street plowed through, straight as a needle, marching itself into town. Oh, behind us it went up the hill, but it went straight, as though the hill were merely impediment. And the town rose up, two blocks away, not taller exactly, but with steeples and drugstores and wide cement buildings full of groceries and, even wider, the two-block stretch of factory with its deep noon whistle, its men spilling out into the park with their domed metal lunch pails and thermoses full of hot, black coffee. And then they packed up the waxed paper that had wrapped their sandwiches and the cores of their apples and screwed on the lids of their thermoses and clicked closed the lids of their lunch boxes and hauled themselves out of the green park benches and walked back through the door where darkness swallowed them whole. And you skated past them on roller skates, or rode past on your fat-wheeled bike, and you knew nothing of their lives but that noontime exodus, and that resigned sigh as they stood up to resume the rest of their day. And you turned right on Water Street and wheeled past the courthouse on to where the concrete dike held the river at bay. You dropped your bike to the grass and straddled the wall and then walked its six-inch width—twenty, thirty, forty feet, before you dropped to the other side where the marsh smelled of cattails gone to seed, and your voices carried and you were caught up in the freedom of being where you were not allowed to go.
The body high in the maple tree. Looking out, through new eyes. The neighborhood small, smaller than you had expected it to be. The sidewalks all lined up to take you places, but here you are, gone up instead of out. Up to where the leaves are your intimates. Up past the natural crook where your body can fit safely into this higher perch where everything is precarious. Above the roof. Above the neighboring tree. Where wind can find you.
Such a short time. From the top of that tree to this white chair before the white desk. A blink. A cough. Wind finds you out.
Windswept, windblown, downwind, wind down. Wind at my back, sword in my side, sidewinder, winding sheet, wraparound gown, wound up, simple past tense of the wound that I carry, surgical scar that confounds me day after day after uncertain day.
I see the four-year-old Beckett. An Irish town, rowhouses tightly knit on each side, and the little shops distinguishing themselves with signs for butcher, bakery, newsagent, post office. His mother grasps his hand to keep him from straying. But now they are on their way home and the shops are thinning and women are out cleaning their stoops and his mother drops his hand to shift her purchases so they settle a bit more comfortably in her white string bag and he skips on ahead, pulled up the hill by some invisible magnetism and then, when he’s gone a bit too far, he realizes he is no longer holding her hand and, even though he waits for her to catch up, she does not reach for him, and he will remember that fact for the rest of his life.
Just as you will remember the swirl of the water as it rounded the curve of the river and the chit chit terr-eeee of redwings and the wash of minnows over your toes. Just as you will remember the backyard a carpet of reds and yellows, and your mother looking out, unable to see you up there in the October leaves. Just as you will continue to hear her calling, and your answering silence, smug in those leaves, alone with your sense of the power of your silence.
Of course you could go on replaying scene after scene. But to what end? Don’t these moments disappear with you, drop off into the void? You suspect that they do—and so you write them furiously, as though you could hang on to a lifetime when, in fact, you know you can’t. Can’t ever quite add it up and make it make sense and make its sum be something—some thing—you can hand over, relieve yourself of, bequeath.
Here is a mystery: what do the spent days do with themselves? How do they breathe in the face of forgetfulness? They have names, and faces. They can’t just be erased. Do you hear that? You should try to hold on. I want you to hold on, if only for my sake. So my days, too, will inflate your lungs. Will fill them with this crisp autumn air that I can breathe at will, at the will of my recollection.
We’ve just finished watching the 2012 World Cup qualifier between Chile and Argentina, and I realize I’ve been blessed to watch Lionel Messi, easily the world’s best player. The ball moved so fluidly, like a needle through cloth. And Messi poured through the defense, even more fluid—a stream of proficiency. That’s not to say in 2014 I’ll root for Argentina. No, I’ll be solidly for Brazil because I was also blessed to watch Pelé, whose career was just winding down when I moved there. I didn’t exactly like Brazil, but it’s impossible to hate a place that can produce a Pelé. Where having fun is more important than getting done. Where the sound of the samba moves like a snake up the hillside and the sun finds you out wherever you are.
So many things to remember, so why do I think of Matthew, who was just over four, trailing through the rooms with an old towel safety-pinned around his neck, a haphazard paper crown, and stocking feet? After a while, he would lie down on the sofa, fold his hands carefully over his heart, and close his eyes. “What are you doing?” we asked. “I’m being Dom Pedro.” What did we expect? He’ d been there in Petrópolis when we’ d taken off our shoes and slid our feet into pale blue paper slippers—like the ones surgeons wear—to make our way slowly in line past the carved pews and gold platters and the sculpted images of Brazil’s founding fathers, past Dom Pedro’s sarcophagus, the great ruler laid out in all his granite finery, finally at home. Never mind that, while we lived there, the country was ruled by a dictator. People still went to the beach and drank infinite cups of cafezinho. Though it’s hard to explain what it was like to live inside a language you didn’t fully own. Or to discover that incessant sun is like incessant rain. Or to go in fear of mistakes after one of your friends found his car riddled with bullets when he got lost one night driving home. Or, ultimately, to be afraid of the beach itself—its broiling sun and its drowning waves, the fact that people came armed with candles in case someone died. Or, simply, to wonder why you never could learn the words to the songs.
Distance does give perspective—in time as well as space. For example, in Bahia, that wheelbarrow full of blood and intestines was, at the time I encountered it, almost more than I could take. I mean, they sloshed. Blood dripped down the sides. It was coming right at me. But now, over thirty years later—no, over forty—that wheelbarrow has become quite tame. The colors have faded. It moves in slow motion. I’m not saying that it isn’t as real, but that it’s more real, dredged up as part of what adds up to the images of my life. There I am, just over thirty, my long brown hair pulled back, the bright sky hovering over all those whitewashed churches, the market a boil of sound, and then there it is—seething red reality, but somehow stilled—something that will return and return to be sure I understand that life has its inner worlds as well.
She sees her reflection in the store window. She looks at herself and I stare back. Or I look at myself and she stares back. It’s hard to tell which. I am older and she is young. Or vice versa. She seems to have startled herself. Who are we, now that we have to rely on new ways of calculating the integers of time? . . .
[excerpt originally published by The Georgia Review]