from “Half in Shade”…

“Young Woman on Fence”

I stare at the tire because to look at her, perched on the fence, feet on the top of the tire, hands open in a suggestive shrug, is to ask the questions I can’t answer. To look at her there, in her man’s white shirt, sport coat, and tie, is to transport yourself to every dream you ever had when you were growing up. Did you know your daughter was playing baseball without her shirt, just like the boys? To look at her face with its sunken eyes, hidden behind glasses, framed by ambiguous hair, cut short–a bob, I think they would have called it–is to look at the self you did not dream of.

Cut the photo in half horizontally and you, too, sit on the white rail fence. It moves from left to right, like a line of type, a sentence stretched to its fullest. Cut it in half vertically and you leave one side blank, bereft of any interest. The right side fills with her, darkens and delineates. Now she is going nowhere. She is merely sitting there, staring at the lens. Her mouth does not lift in recognition. She stares into history, writing herself: young woman on fence.

The tire is an O, a zero, an egg. The day revolves around it. Oh, we exclaim, as it cuts across the great equal sign of the rails. Oh, we say, she is both man and woman, balanced at the cusp of what she might be. Did you know that your daughter was playing baseball? Oh, we say, and Oh, as the mystery deepens, the cervix effaces, letting in light.

It is the thirties. Or late twenties. Who could tell? The album gives no clues. No names, no places. My mother must have known her–why else would she be glued so tightly to the page? My mother could have given me her name, a hazy sense of the day. Of what lay behind that enigmatic mouth. But I do not have my mother to ask. Michigan, I guess, because most of my mother’s young life was played out there. Michigan, 1929, I say, end of a decade that led to the moment she lifted that tie from her brother’s closet, shoved her arms neatly into his sleeves.

Paris. It’s possible. She could have found a place in Paris. If she had enough personality, she would be the talk of the town. Give herself a new name. Paule. She would give up Polly, silly name for someone growing up on a farm, more like the cows. M’on Boss, m’on Bess, m’on Moll, m’on Sal. So many evenings, calling them in to the barn. M’on Daisy, you little pill. The light going down on the pasture, like spilled milk, the horizon white for an instant, then dusk. If she had the personality, she could leave that behind. The cafes in late afternoon, glasses spread across the tables like so many empty suns, talk of where to go to eat, talk of where to go afterwards, where to meet–the studio, or the salon. Light clustered there at the foot of the street, shutters ringing with light, the rooftops a plight of pigeons. Wings lifting into evening air, dark against light, a rush of feathered memory. M’on Poll.

Dirt road, wildflowers, maybe weeds, maybe clover. It’s very early spring–the trees are barely in leaf. Little furls of bud, if you could see them, but you can’t. She can’t see them. They are behind her, calling this is your home. But she has turned her back on them. She is staring at someone, but it takes you a while to remember that. Her stare seems set on someplace deep into the future. She looks beyond the camera that would hold her there on the fence. So you forget there are two people in this photograph, and that she has a willing accomplice. Male or female? Is it the brother who only this morning jokingly handed her his tie so they would set off like boys, wind in their hair? Is it her sister, her friend, someone in need of an escort? Her skirt brushes across her knee as she kneels, lifts the camera, finds the perfect angle. Or another young woman–Did you know that your daughter, dressed in her own father’s shirt, the two of them larking about the tangled miles of rural Michigan, waiting out summer for when they will leave for New York, adventure at their heels?

It’s 1929. Or 1935. If I could know, then I would know what lies ahead for each of them. Maybe it’s already too late, and she cannot leave for a Paris that soon will hear the sounds of bootsteps in its streets. The fence falling into disrepair. A father with his head in his hands, a mother’s illness. Maybe a younger brother, the knife of war already poised over his unsuspecting head. So much held in balance. The tire will be mended (small patch of black rubber) and she will turn back to her closet filled with dresses and shoes. She will turn back to a blue plaid apron and a Sunday hat. She will turn back into Polly, who left the farm for Detroit.

Did you know that? I learned how to be a boy from my books. I could have watched my brother, or my friends, but that would have made it bearable. M’on Boss, m’on Babe, m’on Boss. Strike ‘im out. M’on Boss. Too easily seen through. Translucent. First, I was Colin, but who wanted to be sickly? So I chose Dicken, who could roam the moors and bring back what he found. Gorse blossom, yellow in daylight. Thorned at night. And after that I chose my own names, strange combinations of Robert of Bruce, Duncan, names that carried with them the lochs at daybreak. A solitude of names, ringing inside me. I learned how to be a boy from roaming the moors, each day farther than the day before. To be a boy was to be free from the eyes that told me who I should be.

Five years, and my mother will almost imagine me into being. I’ll come with the war. My mother will paste the photo–Did you?–into the album, laughing a little at their escapades, that is, if it was also her escapade. Let’s give it to her. Who is left to deny it? In sixty years, I’ll open the album and this young woman will be sitting there still, shrugging off the flat white sky. Now I look at her hands, so expressive as they open themselves to the world. I see what I failed to see before. This is the end of the story; she’s the one who has had to change this tire. She’s splaying her fingers to show us–you and me–that they’re covered in deep, dark Michigan mud.