Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

English 101

Our son told us the other day that he's going to be teaching a couple of sections of freshman English at the University of Akron next fall.  I told him he now made the seventh generation of our family who had joined the high-salary, high-respect profession of teaching.

I took my own freshman English course (English 101) in the summer of 1962, right after I graduated from Hiram High School.  My parents thought it would be a good idea to give me a kind of "head start."  I think they also know that I had been a little, uh, inattentive during my high school years (well, inattentive to academic matters, for the most part).  And I think they also knew something that I didn't discover until I was well into the course: Virtually all of the other students were repeaters.  They'd failed English 101 the year before and were trying to get themselves back on schedule to graduate.  Failed English 101.  I wonder ... how common is that these days when the average college grade is a B+ (or A-?)?

My professor that summer was Dr. Charles F. McKinley, a wonderful man from whom I would eventually take several more courses (once I figured out I was going to be an English major).  He was patient with us on those hot summer days in old Hinsdale Hall--no A-C.  He was especially patient with me, for I think he recognized very quickly that I was about as naive a reader as I could be.  I had had very good--even excellent--teachers at Hiram High School (Mrs. Browning, Mr. Brunelle), but I had not exactly knocked myself out to do all the work.  I was in high school to prepare myself for Major League Baseball and (during the off-season) Broadway.  And, of course, to discover the Meaning of Love.  I failed in all the above.  I was not nearly talented enough for the Tribe or Broadway; I was too hormonally saturated to discover anything about Love.

Later, Dr. McKinley would become a good friend--a colleague for Joyce at Hiram.  He wrote recommendation letters for me, attended speeches I gave--invariably telling me I'd gotten into the B+/A- range.  High praise from him.  His ashes are scattered near the Episcopal Church, not a hundred yards from our house.  In our garden are growing some daylilies from his garden.

We used two books that summer--I still have both.  One was an anthology: Interpreting Literature
 (Revised), Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1961).  It was divided into genre--Biography, Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Essays.  Among the works we read--"The Killers" (Hemingway), "Young Goodman Brown" (Hawthorne), poems by Frost, Housman, Dickinson, Stevenson ("My Shadow"--a poem my grandmother used to recite to me), R. Browning ("My Last Duchess"), Tennyson ("Ulysses"), Wordsworth, Whitman, Shakespeare, D. Thomas, E. A. Robinson, Poe, Coleridge, Longfellow, Blake, Bryant, Yeats, Shelley, Auden, Masters, Spender, Emerson, Gray, Keats, Kipling, Jonson.  We read Macbeth (which I'd read only months before in high school; I liked it not a whit more that summer than I'd liked it at HHS) and The Glass Menagerie.

I have only flashes of (bad) memories about our discussions in class.  I was relieved at the time to discover that everyone else was as clueless as I, as silent as I when he asked a question.  There's comfort in that, realizing that you're in a room with people who share your deficiencies.  I don't think Dr. McKinley cared too much for discussions, anyway.  What he really liked to do in class was read aloud--and he was good at it.  I can still hear his deep, intelligent voice reading "My Last Duchess" and "Ozymandias."  I cannot read those poems now without hearing him.

And as I look over that table of contents, I realize that I've taught many/most of those works myself--and have memorized virtually all of the poems.

I remember only one of the several essays we wrote: "The Artist's Concern for Human Values."  I had no idea what "human values" are, so I asked my mother.  Who tried to explain.  I wrote something, filled a couple of pages with drivel, which failed to impress Dr. McKinley.  I saved most of my college papers; that one, however, is gone, and is now rotting in some landfill somewhere (it was rotting before it entered the landfill).  I hope no archaeologist ever discovers it, tries to infer from it something about 18-year-olds in 1962.  He/She won't be impressed.

The other book we used was a grammar and usage handbook--a blue book I cannot at this moment find.  I used it for years, kept it on my shelf.  (Maybe Joyce has "borrowed" it?)  We did regular exercises in that book, most of which gave me little trouble, principally because I'd grown up with a mother who was also an English teacher--and with an older brother, Richard, who'd read every book ever published by the time he was seven and who delighted in editing my every word, even before it had finished its passage through my mouth and out into the air.  (No wonder I stuttered!  And still do, when I'm nervous.)  I didn't really understand a lot of the rules, but when presented with a choice, I just tried to remember how Mom and Richard would say it.  If I remembered correctly, I got it right.  It wasn't until some years later--teaching grammar and usage myself--that I began to understand what I was doing.

The course, I think, was six weeks long.  Grades came in the mail.  Mine came.  B.  I was ecstatic.  I can do college work!

Next time--My own (single) experience teaching freshman English, Kent State University, Spring 1982, almost exactly twenty years after my own experience as a student.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 48

“What’s wrong, Vickie?  You’ve been quiet all evening.”
I looked at my father from my bed.  He was sitting at the little table in our motel room, typing a story for the newspaper on a laptop computer.  I was reading … well, I was pretending to be reading.  My mind was elsewhere, and the words on the page were nothing to me but strange black marks, a weird code I could not translate.
 “Is it something you want to talk about?  Are you upset about the storm?”
 “No.  The storm doesn’t bother me.  We didn’t lose anything that really mattered.”  I looked at him hard.  “Did we, Father?”
 “No,” he said.  “Nothing that really mattered, I guess.  But I will miss our books so much, won’t you?”
 “Yes.  But we can buy other books, can’t we?  With the insurance money?
 “Oh, sure, we can buy other books.  But I’ll miss those particular books.  Each one was special—like a friend.”  He looked at me.  “Or a daughter.”
I felt my eyes starting to flood.
“But you’re right,” he went on.  “When you consider what we could have lost …”
 “Right, Father.  I mean, my workshop was untouched.  Nothing there was damaged.”
 “We can be grateful for that.”
 “And we found some of the family things out in the yard.  The pictures of Mother—they weren’t even hurt.”
 “Yes, that was fortunate.”
 “And so,” I said, “nothing was lost.  Nothing that really mattered.”
 “That’s right,” he said, looking at me strangely.  “Vickie, what’s on your mind?  You’re not yourself.”
 “That’s a funny way to put it,” I said.  “Not myself.”
 “Why?  What are you getting at?”
 “If  I’m not myself,” I said, “then who am I?”
Now it was Father’s turn just to look.  His face was serious, worried.  I think he suspected I’d found out what he’d hoped I would never learn.
 “Vickie … ?”
I reached under the bed and pulled up the paper bag.
 “What’s that, Vickie?”
 “I was about to ask you the same thing, Father,” I said, removing the family history, holding it up so Father could see it.  “Interesting reading,” I said, paging through it.
 “Is that all you can say, Father?” I asked heatedly.  “‘Oh’?”
He bowed his head.  I waited a long, long time before he said anything.
He looked up, took a deep breath, and released it with a sigh.  He stood and came slowly over to my bed.  He sat down beside me.  “What do you want to know?” he asked, almost in a whisper.
 “What is this?” I asked.  “Is this a story?  Or is it …?”  I let my voice trail away.
Father took another deep breath.  “I could lie to you,” he said.  “But I don’t like to do that.”
I waited.
 “What you have found,” he said, “is not just a story.  It is history.  The history of our family.  It is true, every word of it.”
 “Then … you … I …?”
 “That’s right, Victoria,” he said.  “You—like me—belong to the House of Frankenstein.”
I felt my heart quiver in my chest.
 “You are the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Victor Frankenstein.”  He looked at me closely.  “I will tell you what I have learned,” he said quietly.  “And all I can do is just hope that you are ready to hear it.”
I was.[i]

            [i] Ed. note: Here ends the first packet of papers given to me by Vickie Stone.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Year I Was Interesting

In the fall of 1995, late one Friday night, I returned to Harmon Middle School from our annual eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C.  I was whupped.  I'd been going on that trip, more or less every year, since 1967.  When I first went, the kids were in awe at the JFK grave site at Arlington.  In later years--they were still respectful, but the emotion was much diminished--as if they were standing at the grave site of, oh, Franklin Pierce.  JFK died in 1963, his brother in 1968.  By the 1990s, none of the students had been alive when the Kennedys were in--or advancing toward--the White House.

Anyway, as I said, I was whupped--nothing like three or four days, 24/7, with eighth graders to remind you that you are very mortal.  I went into the teachers' workroom (we no longer called it a "lounge"--a word that sent an unfortunate message to the community: Those damn teachers lounge around half the day, work only nine months of the year ....  you know).

I checked my faculty mailbox and found mostly junk, including a letter from Cleveland Magazine. I thought it was nothing but a request to subscribe (it didn't look all that remarkable), but for some reason I decided to open it.  And there I read something astonishing: I'd been picked by the editors as one of the "Most Interesting People" of 1995.  Now that was news that I knew would surprise my students, many of whom had quite different ideas.  (My friends and family were all baffled, as well.)

I read on in the letter, discovering that there was going to be a reception for us at what was then called Jacobs Field--out at that restaurant along the left-field line called the Terrace Club.  That would be fun.  I'd been to park many times--but never in the TC.  And then we'd all be featured in an upcoming issue of the magazine.

I was on a pretty good roll right about that time.  My annotated-illustrated edition of The Call of the Wild had just come out (Univ. of Okla. Pr.); I was nearing retirement (only two years away); I was writing like mad, thinking that when I did retire, I would have an easy time making up the diminished salary.  (That part hasn't exactly worked out the way I thought it would.)  And now Cleveland was going to declare that I was a Most Interesting Person.

The night of the reception was all right. We all gut coffee mugs.  I met a number of the others who shared the honor.  One was a local car dealer who did hyper-patriotic commercials, a couple of professional athletes, and ... I don't remember the rest.  I do know that when the photographer walked by, I was erupting in laughter about something.  Flash!  I asked him if he'd take another.  He did.  (Guess which one was in the magazine?  I looked like one of the 8th graders I to whom I gave detentions for dorking around.)

The magazine came out.  I took one to class, showed it to my students, some of whom (all? most?) were getting their first notion that journalists don't know what they're talking about.  If they think Dyer is interesting, they must be wrong about everything!

I've spent some time the last day or two looking for that magazine, for the letter, the certificate (Did we get one? I think so?!).  But I can find nothing except the coffee mug.  Somewhere there's a file folder holding all the goodies ... but where is anyone's guess.  If it turns up, I'll post the story, the yucky picture of me.

Meanwhile, last night (Saturday), this Most Interesting Person went to Starbucks for a decaf Americano, came home and read about twenty pages of John Irving's novel Last Night in Twisted River, watched (streaming Netflix, in bed) The Lincoln Lawyer, based on a novel by Michael Connelly, whom I like, got up and fed my sourdough starter.  Crashed.  Joyce--who is even more interesting--graded papers all evening, came in for the last ten minutes of the movie and asked me 50,000 questions about what was going on.  (I handled it very well, I thought.)   Eat your hearts out, you boring people!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Plate Envy

It's not often that a license plate makes me jealous.  But just yesterday I saw one that I wish I had on my car.

SH8KSPR, it said.  And there were some other decals on the back of that car that made me think I wouldn't mind knowing the owner.  We seem to have some things in common.

Our family never had "vanity plates" on our cars.  Partly it was money (we were never exactly rolling in it); partly it was, I think, a humility that our parents tried to instill in us, with varying degrees of failure.  Even the word vanity applied to a license plate was too much for my parents.

I've seen a lot of amusing ones over the years, not a single one of which I can remember at the moment.  So I'm going to cheat.  Google ... here I come!


I'm back.  The search terms "funny license plates" gave me more than 5 million hits.  With lots of images, too.  Now I'm going to go look at some of the sites.


How about some of these?

  • COUGUR (Tennessee, I think, but I dare not comment on this one.)
  • GANDALF (Florida.  The plate is white, so this must be a post-Balrog plate.)
  • 5INFUL (Can't tell the state.  Clever, though, using a 5 for an S.  I might want to know this person, too.)
  • STOLN (Florida.  This might invite more attention from the police than I'd want.)
  • WUUTEVR (I heard this too many times when I was teaching--wouldn't want it on my car.)
  • MMMBACON (Ontario.  Who says Canadians aren't like us?)
  • VLAD THE (California--carefully positioned above the word IMPALA on the car.)
  • UR NEXT (A little ominous.)
  • IPWNYOU (Alabama: What kind of drip would have this one?)
  • FLASHME (Maryland: So hopeful, our species.)
There are all kinds of sites for this--there are photo blogs.  Contests (you can vote on the plate you like best).  Displays of all sorts.  You could spend a lot of hours looking at the sites.  Not I.  Instead, I'm going to think of some plates I would like to have.


Okay, here are a few that would communicate what I feel most of the time ...
I could go on, but I'm bored now.


[PS: This post kept my spell-checker very busy.]

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 47

The entire trunk contained many old books and several packets of papers, wrapped in twine.  I picked up one of the books, opened it, and looked at the title page: The History and Present State of Electricity, by Joseph Priestly.  The date was in Roman numerals, but I quickly figured the year of publication: 1767.  The book I held in my hands was more than 200 years old—but the copy was as fresh as if it had just been published.  But the smell of rot coming from the volume was almost more than I could bear.  So I placed it carefully back in the trunk.  There were other books, all dealing with chemistry and electricity, all old, all appearing to be new, all reeking with death.
I picked up another volume, a large, leather-bound book that said only JOURNAL on the cover.  I slowly opened it and saw, in tiny, cramped handwriting, descriptions and drawings of scientific experiments.  This occupied page after page after page, all in the same, tiny handwriting.  Almost all of it was in German, so reading it was no problem for me.  The experiments seemed to have something to do with chemistry, something with electricity.  The dates were all in the 1790s.  Yet—like the first book I’d looked at—the pages were clean and crisp … like new.  And—also like the first book—they were sour with the stink of death.
I picked up a packet of papers wrapped in tightly-knotted twine.  And like the lock, the moment I touched the knots, they fell away, the strings floating softly to the floor.  The top sheet was a title page to what was probably the entire manuscript I held in my hand.  It read: A History of the Family Frankenstein
I wondered, Is this a novel?  A book that was never published?
I was excited.  I’d made a discovery!  Maybe the newspapers would be interested.  I turned the page.  And nearly dropped the entire packet on the floor.  There were only three words on this page, but no three words in the English language could have surprised me more:

by Henry Stone

My father.

Had my father written a novel?  Hidden it in the basement?  But why?  Why would he bother to be so secretive?  Why hadn’t he ever told me about it?  I smiled as I thought of a possible answer: Maybe it contained things he didn’t think I was “ready” for, things you might find in a book by Stephen King or Anne Rice—violence, gore, bad language, sex.
I paged through it but found nothing objectionable—in fact, much of what I glanced at was, well, boring.  Details about places in Europe.  Lists of names and dates.
But the final pages contained something that absolutely riveted me.  It was a drawing of the family tree of the Frankensteins.  The earliest ancestors were in the middle ages—the thirteenth century!
With a finger, I traced my way down through the diagram to Victor Frankenstein, where I knew the family must end.  In Mary Shelley’s story, he died in the Arctic, aboard Robert Walton’s ship.
But no … the diagram showed that Victor had a brother six years younger: Ernest Frankenstein.  I’d forgotten about him in the book.  Ernest, I could see from the drawing, had numerous descendants.  One branch of his family was named Wahl.  Aunt Claire’s name!  What …?  Is she related to the Frankensteins?  An old photograph fell from the book.  I bent to pick it up.  It showed a young woman dressed in the fashion of the eighteenth century.  She wore a smile, a smile I’d seen so many times in my own house.  The woman in the picture looked exactly like Aunt Claire.

I slipped the photograph back between the pages of the manuscript and read on.  I was about to experience another surprise, this one coming when I looked at what appeared under Victor Frankenstein’s name.  The chart showed that he had married a woman named Margaret Saville in London, England, in 1796.  So he hadn’t died in the Arctic?  His new friend, Robert Walton, had covered it all up?  Taken Victor back to England with him?
And Margaret Saville?  Where had I read that name before?
I shuddered when I remembered.  In Frankenstein, she was the married sister of Robert Walton, the one he wrote letters to, the letters about Victor Frankenstein, about the creature.  The chart showed that her husband had died in 1790.  When Victor met her, she was a widow.
The diagram continued, on through the generations.  The marriages.  The children.  My father, Henry, was born in 1944.  And Henry, so the chart said, moved to America in 1962, where he met and married Mary Waldman, who died in childbirth in 1984.  They had only one child, Victoria.[i]
I felt my body tremble with the cold when I read these last entries.  It was too strange, much too strange.  These most recent Frankensteins—real or not—had names just like those in my family!  My father’s name is Henry, my mother’s Mary, mine
Victoria.  But I figured that my father had just used familiar names for his story, if this was a story.  Maybe it was just out outline for a story he wanted to write.  Maybe he was just playing around.  Maybe—
I turned to the final page:

Victor Frankenstein, of course, changed his name to Stone when he returned to England.  So all his descendants carried the Stone family name.  None of them knew that their name had once been Frankenstein, one of the most hated and feared names in history.  But I found the family papers.  And so now I know.  But I will hide them so that no one else will ever see them.  One day, perhaps, I will find the courage to destroy them—I cannot seem to make myself do that, not yet—and thereby destroy the horrible history of my family.  My daughter, Victoria, must never discover who she is!

Father’s voice!
 “Vickie, are you down in the basement?  Vickie?  Where are you?  Come upstairs—it’s not safe down there.”
Quickly, I returned all the items to the trunk—all except the family history.  I closed the lid and replaced the lock, which closed with a click as soon as I put it in place.  The glow was diminishing, so I picked up the flashlight and slipped back out of the hidden room.
 “Vickie?”  I could hear his voice, now at the head of the stairs.  “Right now!”
 “Yes, Father!” I cried.  “I was just looking at my room.  I’ll be right up.”
I went into my workshop and found one of my book bags.  I put the family history in it.  I had just closed my door when I heard it, the serpent’s thoughts.  Victoria!  Victoria!   I felt a tone of warning in the “voice,” but I ignored it. 
I then went upstairs, into the light, into the arms of my father.

            [i] Ed. note: The U. S. Immigration Service confirms that Henry Stone arrived in the United States at the time here recorded.  Records I  have examined in England reveal the birth of Davis Stone in 1800, but I have thus far been unable to find any earlier records.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Changing Venues

I've closed a few coffee shops in my day.  Since we moved back to Hudson in the fall of 1997, two of my "regular" shops have closed (Saywell's, Dave's Coffee), and now my third (Caribou) is about to go under.  I'm not taking credit or blame for any of this.  Just saying ...

Saywell's had been a family business for nearly a hundred years.  A kind of old-fashioned drug store cum soda fountain, it had a very warm atmosphere.  The servers there knew what I wanted, and when they saw me coming down the street, they would put my order on "my" table so that it was ready by the time I entered the shop.  (My morning order: coffee, toasted bagel with peanut butter [crunchy].)  I went there every morning--and sometimes in the afternoon, too--and did my reading and/or homework for the classes I was teaching.  We had also patronized Saywell's when we were living in Hudson earlier (1979-1990), and even when we were living in Aurora (1990-1997), we would drive over to Saywell's on weekends--and in the summers.

Sundays were the best days at Saywell's.  Our friends would gather there--about 10 a.m. or so--and we would read the Sunday Times and have earnest discussions about teaching and politics and the Tribe and whatever.  Then ... friends moved on, passed on, and it wasn't long before Saywell's closed, as well--their Rx business had been decimated by the arrival in town of CVS, Drug Mart, Acme Pharmacy, etc.  No way to compete with corporations.  And Starbucks had drunk deeply from Saywell's coffee business.  (I did--and do--go to Starbucks in the afternoons--but I never went there instead of Saywell's: That would have been treason!)

When Saywell's closed, I moved down the street about a block to Dave's.  There were friends there, too, and Dave and his wife were interesting people.  He was an aspiring writer; she, I think, worked in the music industry.  Both were liberal Democrats, and it was fun to hear the exchanges between Dave and his GOP customers (there weren't that many, I don't think, once the word went out).  I used to sit in one of the easy chairs by the front door and do my reading and homework.  A comfortable place--in many ways.  But then Dave decided to move on.  And coffee shop #2 bit the dust.

The only place left in easy walking distance was Caribou, so I started going there, early every morning (I was often the first one in the door at 6 a.m.).  The political atmosphere was very different: Most of the people who were there about the time I was were very conservative (some were very conservative--and very very conservative), so sometimes I felt my BP spiking as I heard the tirades about Obama and Democrats and lazy-people-who-just-don't-want-to-work, etc.  But I stayed out of it, stayed huddled in my corner easy chair, doing my work.

But sometimes the debate came right to me.  Some of the customers knew my politics (though I hardly wear anything on my sleeve other than a coffee stain), and they would come over, confront me, say outrageous things, just to see.  I usually tried to smile and discourage them with silence, but one man, in particular, liked to get sarcastic with me.  The other day, for example, I was unloading my backpack (getting out the work I was going to do), and he said something like this: If you had on a backwards baseball cap, we would know who you were.  He said this to me, days after the Boston Marathon bombing.

I was horrified.  But said nothing--not aloud anyway.  I just did my work and walked home, still in disbelief that someone--especially someone I barely know--would say that to me.  I have two brothers in Boston, a niece, a nephew, a sister-in-law.  Friends.  Fellow travelers in the vale of tears.

Caribou is closing in about six weeks, converting to a Peet's.  But I have not gone back.  And I will not go back.

I've started hanging out at Hattie's, a cafe that's now in the space where Saywell's used to be.  They don't open till 8, so I do some work at home before I go there.  But they're nice to me at Hattie's, the workers.  They smile, we joke lightly, amiably, and I can read and take notes in peace and not have to wonder who will decide his day just won't start right if he doesn't assail me with something cruel.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 46

“Father, why did that happen to us?” I asked him that night.  “Why were we the only ones to suffer?”
We were staying in a motel out by the highway.  We had several offers from people—including Harriet’s mother—to stay with them while our house was being repaired, but Father wasn’t sure what we were going to do.  He told people he was too overwhelmed.  He would figure out soon what to do, though.
“I don’t know, Vickie,” he said grimly.  “There’s no explaining something like that.”
“It’s almost as if the tornado came after us,” I said.  “Like it wanted to hurt us.”
Father looked at me.  “That couldn’t happen, could it, Vickie?” he asked.  “Tornadoes don’t think—they don’t plan what they’re going to do.”
“Are you sure, Father?  Are you really sure?”
He just looked at me.
“And where’s Aunt Claire, Father?  What’s happened to Aunt Claire?  We haven’t seen her since the storm.”
“I don’t know,” he said quietly.  “I really don’t know what happened to her.”
I felt a frigid hand grip my heart: Again my father was lying to me.

The next morning we met a contractor and an insurance agent at the house.  While the three of them walked around and talked about rebuilding, I took a flashlight and headed for the basement—without telling them.  I was pretty sure they wouldn’t let me enter the ruin, but I had been worrying about my workshop all night.
But all was fine down there.  Of course, the electricity was out, so I couldn’t really tell if my equipment still worked, but nothing seemed damaged.  I didn’t lose anything.
As I was about to leave, I noticed something.  Something different.  I pointed my light down the basement wall, down to the other room, the one with the padlock.
The storm had caused the foundation to shift—the cracking noises we’d heard at the height of the tornado.  The door frame had separated from the stonework, leaving an opening.  I shined my light into the small room and saw that it was just about empty.   The only object in there was a large, old-fashioned storage trunk.  It was covered with dust and cobwebs.
The space between the doorframe and the wall was big enough for a thin sixth grade girl like me to squeeze through.
And so I did.

The room was cold, bitterly cold.  As I stepped carefully through the opening, I saw my breath billow in a cloud before me.  Inside the little room, I nearly gagged with the stench.  I had smelled death before, back on Green Island, so I knew immediately what it was.
For a moment I nearly stepped back into the basement I knew, but curiosity won out.  I wish it had not.  I wish I did not know what I learned that day.  I wish … 
But let me tell what happened.
I approached the old chest, realizing with every step that the foul odor that now was nearly suffocating me was coming from it.  Is there a dead body inside?  I paused before it for some moments before I decided to try to open it.
I noticed there was a huge old padlock on the hasp.  Impossibly, it was glowing softly in the darkness.  It was encrusted with rust and corrosion, but it still looked solid and strong.  My heart sank as I realized I would never be able to break it.
But the moment I touched it, the lock simply fell open, the parts separating as easily and smoothly as if they had just been sprayed with silicone.  I removed the lock and laid it gently on the floor.   Its light grew stronger, illuminating the entire room in a ghastly green.  I turned off my flashlight, laid it beside the lock, and turned back once more.
Slowly, I reached for the heavy lid.
And—once again—the moment my hands touched it, something unexpected happened: The lid rose slowly, silently.  It had taken no effort at all to raise it.  None.  It rose by itself, as if lifted by an invisible hand.
I leaned over and peered inside.  Now the stench of death was so overpowering I was breathing only through my mouth.
But there was no corpse that I could see, not even any parts of a corpse.  Nothing organic at all.  And I could see very well, for the contents, too, were bathed in a soft green light.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Know When to Duck

I have eaten mallard.

When I was a kid, my dad would go hunting now and then, would bring back some rabbits or quail or mallards.  Mom had no interest in cleaning his kill, so Dad performed that function, too, presenting Mom with the cleaned carcasses, which she would then prepare competently if not enthusiastically.  Like many of the rest of us, Mom had no problems eating dead things; she just didn't want to have such intimate knowledge of the process.

I don't remember how mallard tasted--like chicken?  And I never order duck in restaurants (not sure why).  But today I was reminded of all this when, right outside my study window, early this morning, while I sat at my computer updating my Quicken files, I saw a mallard (female) walking/waddling resolutely along, not ten feet away from me, examining the thick ivy that grows at the margins of our yard.  Was she looking for a nesting site?  No sooner had that thought arrived in my mind than the green-headed male came scurrying after, trying to catch up.  Just like a guy.  Distracted in the back yard by something.

Last year, a pair of ducks decided to build a nest right at the foot of our rear porch steps, not two feet from the driveway.  We didn't think that was a good idea for a variety of reasons.  There are feral cats in the neighborhood, and we had no desire to come out some morning to discover bloody duck feathers scattered around the drive.  Also, because we drive in and out all day, we didn't think it would be good for the ducklings to have to learn to dodge a Prius.  We would certainly make way for ducklings, but we didn't think it was a good idea for the little critters to grow up in terror of big black machines.  So ... we discouraged the nesting ... and they soon went elsewhere.

And now ... are they back?  (All mallards look alike to a non-mallard like me.)  The doughty ducks crossed our yard, crossed Church Street, and headed into the back yard of the neighbor who feeds the feral cats.  Uh oh.  I was torn what to do--run out and warn the ducks ... how?  Deny the feral cats an uncanned brunch?  A coward, I sat and waited.

In moments, a flash of movement.  The female, airborne, came flapping around the corner of the neighbor's house, doing, roughly, 1000 mph.  Pause.  Here came the male, dilatory again, but also doing about 1000.  I assume a frustrated feral cat or two were cursing their ill fortune in the neighbor's back yard.

I felt cheered by the events.  I guess I generally root for prey over predator, except, of course, in the poultry aisle at the Acme.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 45

We ate at Harriet’s that night.  Mrs. Eastbrook cooked out on their charcoal grill, for there was still no electricity on the street.  As we ate, she explained what she had seen.
“I was watching out our window,” he said, “and I saw you run inside with Harriet.  I knew the safest thing to do would be to go to the basement.  But then I heard a change in the wind, so I looked out.”
“And?” my father asked.
“The funnel was going back up into its cloud,” she said .  “It was a miracle.  But just then,” she added, “just when it got over your house, it started to touch down again.  Shingles and siding were soaring everywhere … books were flying like birds—the pages were literally flapping like wings!  It was like they were flying away somewhere.  Then I saw the entire top of your house rise up into the cloud and disappear.   I watched your couch whirl right up out of your house and spin its way over onto our roof.  It was amazing.  Truly amazing.
“And then,” said her mother, “the cloud seemed to pull the funnel up into it— almost like someone was up there, reeling it in.”  She paused to think about that.  “And then it was all over.”  She put her arm around Harriet.  “I was sure you were all dead,” she said, her voice breaking.  “I was sure I’d lost my Harriet.  Lost you all.”

Harriet and I were up in her room, spread out on the floor, our ears to the heat register, listening to the adults talking down in the living room.  Their words came to us, broadcast through the ductwork as clearly as if we were listening to a radio.  We had done it many times before.
“I’m so glad no one was hurt,” we heard Harriet’s mother say.  “Without Harriet, I don’t know what I would do.”  She sounded near tears.  We heard my father moving across the room.
“It was the most frightening moment of my life,” Father said.  “And all I could think was that I was not going to get to see Vickie grow up.”
“Oh, Henry.”
There were no sounds for a few moments.  And Harriet and I just looked at each other.
Harriet then whispered to me, “Do you think they’re … you know …?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” I said.  Then I tried to sound like a radio announcer: “Stay tuned to this station,” I declared.  “Up next … kissing sounds!”
And then we were both giggling so hard we had to move away from the register so our parents wouldn’t hear us.
When we recovered, we went back to listen some more.
“… and you won’t think I’m crazy?” we heard Mrs. Eastbrook ask.
“I could never think you’re crazy,” my father said softly.  “Not now, not ever.”
I could not look at Harriet, for I knew if I did, I would erupt in laughter and give away our secret listening post.
“So what did you see?” Father asked.
“The more I think about it,” said Harriet’s mother, “the less sure I am that it really happened.  I mean, it couldn’t happen, could it?”
“How would I know?” Father laughed.  “I don’t know what it is yet!”
“Okay, Henry.  But promise you won’t doubt me … won’t … laugh at me.”
“Never, Elizabeth.  Never would I laugh at you.”
“Okay.”  We could hear her take a deep breath.  “Moments after you all ran in the house, I was just about to go to the cellar when I saw something out of the corner of my eye.”  There was a silence.
“Well, what did you see?” asked Father.
“It was Aunt Claire,” she said.  “I saw Aunt Claire.”
“Oh, no,” said Father.  “She wasn’t hurt, was she?”
“That’s hard to say,” said Mrs. Eastbrook.  “I saw her … rise up, right out of your chimney.”
“Out of the chimney?”
“Yes, she had her arms stretched high over her head, as if she were reaching for something.  And then she began turning, slowly, slowly, around and around, as she rose into the funnel cloud.”
“Oh, poor Aunt Claire,” said Father sadly.
“Henry,” said Mrs. Eastbrook in a firm whisper.  “Listen.  She was rising much more slowly than she would if the funnel were, you know, taking her.  It was if she wanted to go up into the cloud.  I know this sounds crazy, but she seemed, almost, to be flying into the cloud.”
There was more silence while Harriet and I looked at each other in shock.
“But that’s not the worst part,” Mrs. Eastbrook went on.
“It’s not?”
“No.  As she rose, her black dress flew up—and then over her head … and away.”
“Oh no.”
“And Henry …?”
“Aunt Claire had no body, Henry.  She was a skeleton.  It was just a skeleton that rose into that cloud.  And as she vanished from sight, I could hear her scream.  Only, it wasn’t a scream of pain.  It was a scream of joy, Henry.  A scream of pure joy.”

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"The Labor We Delight in ..."

A good FB friend wrote the other day to ask how I was doing, medically and otherwise.  I wrote back, mentioning a line uttered by Macbeth (that great role model) in the eponymous play: "The labour we delight in physics pain," he tells Macduff (2.3).  He is being a bit flippant (we know what's on his mind at the time) and disingenuous, but even the social banter of a brute can--now and then--make some sense.  In my case, it makes great sense.  The work I love to do ameliorates whatever physiological discomfort (small) or psychological stress (lots) I feel.  And so I hurl myself into it, every day, dawn to dark.

Quite by coincidence, there was in the New York Times today a piece about ill people who work ferociously until they can't.  (Link)  Called "Sprinting Toward the End" (by Dwight Garner), the piece mentions Nora Ephron, Roger Ebert, and Christopher Hitchens--all are recently deceased, and all continued working and writing until their bodies and minds simply refused to obey.  The piece goes on to talk about the psychological benefits--and problems--such an approach produces.

There is nothing really new about it.  I am sure that distressed members of our species have always found comfort in hard work--especially in work that they love.  In 1822, for instance, Mary Shelley lost her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in a boating accident off the western coast of Italy.  She was devastated.  She had already suffered at least one miscarriage and had buried three other young children lost to illness.  Mary was still only in her mid-twenties.  Some months after the drowning, she wrote this in her journal:

Yes; I am calmer.  For some days I could neither read or attend; my feeling of wretchedness clung to me, nor could I even with my utmost endeavours rid myself of my agony.  Now I recur to my studies.  I find desultory reading adds to, instead of alleviating my sorrows; but I find a balm in serious & deep study, & to that I shall addict myself (The Journals of Mary Shelley 460).

Mary Shelley--who suffered far more than I could ever dream of--is, however, my older sister.  I've learned from her.  I am up at dawn--or earlier--and reading and/or writing by 6 a.m.  I work nonstop until noon, have a quick lunch, and work 2-3 more hours in the afternoon before heading to the health club, where I ride an exercise bike as hard as I can (I try to do eleven miles in thirty minutes) and recite memorized poems in my wee little head until my body cries, Enough!  Then it's home for supper, lots of conversation with Joyce, then more reading until my eyelids decide they've earned a rest.  I'll watch something mindless on TV for my last hour of consciousness, then fall asleep with the hope I will not have dark dreams.  I usually don't--a blessing.

Next morning ... it starts over.

As long as I keep working--reading, writing, reviewing, planning--I find that thoughts of Thanatos recede into the shadows, which is precisely where I want to keep them (and him).  It worked for my sister, Mary; it worked for Nora Ephron, Roger Ebert, Christopher Hitchens.  It is working for me.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


Did anyone write better revenge stories than Edgar Poe?  Many have read "The Cask of Amontillado," the tale of the man who "walls up" another man who has insulted him (we never learn the nature of the insult).  Less well known--but even more violent--is one of the last stories he lived to see published, "Hop-Frog."

It's the story of the revenge of a court jester, a dwarf, physically handicapped, whom the king relentlessly mocks and degrades.  This is bad enough--but when the king also abuses Trippetta, Hop-Frog's love (he throws wine in her face), this is too much.  Hop-Frog concocts a grotesque revenge plot at a masquerade for the king and his ministers.  By the end, they are all hanging from the ceiling, in flames, while Hop-Frog and Trippetta make their escape.

Literature is full of revenge stories.  In Genesis, God himself practices it--banishing Adam and Eve. And then there was the flood ... and don't forget that stuff in Sodom and Gomorrah ... Things didn't turn out well there.  Odysseus slaughtered all the suitors.  Iago got a bit of revenge, as did John the Bastard in Much Ado About Nothing.  (Though things didn't work out too well for either of them afterwards.)  Romeo's revenge in R & J doesn't work out well, either.  Twelfth Night ends with Malvolio's dark promise of revenge.  And in Titus Andronicus appears the grisliest scene in Shakespeare: A mother unwittingly eats a meat pie made with her sons' bodies--her sons who have raped and blinded and disfigured Titus' daugher, Lavinia.  And on and and on in Shakespeare.

The bloodiest passages in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn concern the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, a feud whose origins no one in the two families seems even to know.  Huck sees his young friend Buck Grangerford shot down right in front of him.  He sees the brutality, later, of the Duke and the King, tarred and feathered by a vengeful mob.  And Huck learns: Revenge has no end.

And is there a plot device in the movies more common than revenge?  Comedy, action film, drama--doesn't really matter.  There it is, revenge, often at the very heart of the story.  I recently saw Snatch, the 2001 Guy Ritchie film. In that one, Brad Pitt exacts a bloody revenge on a mobster who has killed his mother.  Man on Fire (2004) has Denzel Washington pursuing (and torturing and killing) the kidnappers of a little girl. Liam Neeson has made a career of employing his "special set of skills" in the service of revenge.  One of his latest--Taken 2--uses a double-revenge plot: The bad guys from the original Taken want revenge on Neeson for killing their friends and family; Neeson then exacts revenge on them for messing again with his family.

I could go on for pages ... but will mention only the recent TV series Revenge--blood and gore in the Hamptons.  Very popular.

There is surely something cathartic about imagining revenge.  Every time I've been wronged by someone, I've entertained rich fantasies about the payback (the title, by the way, of a 1991 Mel Gibson revenge flick) I'd like to practice on him or her (yes, some hers have been on my list).  But I honestly don't think I've ever set out to actually perform revenge on someone.  Okay, in third or fourth grade I stole a bully's basketball and flattened it with a butcher knife.  But the guy never knew who stole the ball (proof: I'm still alive), and it's an incident I cannot today recall without horror.  Who was that person who did that?

I'm thinking about revenge today, of course, because of the events in Boston.  I've heard some amazing things on television--read some amazing things on Facebook.  People are enraged (as I am) about the slaughter in that city. The lives lost, the lives ruined.  It's staggering.  Revenge is in the air.  I've read a number of descriptions about what we "ought" to do to the suspect--if he survives his wounds.  Most involve horrific deaths--the sort that he and his brother apparently visited upon some people who were doing nothing but enjoying their lives that day.  Would serve him right is the refrain appended--tacitly or explicitly--to the descriptions.

Well, maybe it would serve him right.  But it would serve the rest of us wrong.  Here's what I think we ought to do: try him, convict him (if he's as guilty as he seems to be), sentence him to life without parole.  And spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened and why.  How and why did these young men turn this way?  Decide to do what they did?  And how is it that they were capable of walking through a happy crowd, knowing that they were carrying on their backs the instruments that would wreak such devastation?  What kind of person can do that?  Are there ways we can more reliably identify such people before it's too late?

I believe, too, that revenge diminishes us.  An eye for an eye, as someone once said, leaves us all blind.  I know, of course, that if I had lost a child in Boston--if I or a loved one had been maimed--I would full of grief and anger and, probably, a desire for revenge.  Remember in Much Ado when Leonato's brother, Antonio, tries to calm Leonato, who is enraged because of the outrage done to his daughter?  Leonato turns on his brother ...

I pray thee, cease thy counsel,
Which falls into mine ears as profitless
As water in a sieve: give not me counsel;
Nor let no comforter delight mine ear
But such a one whose wrongs do suit with mine.
Bring me a father that so loved his child,
Whose joy of her is overwhelm'd like mine,
And bid him speak of patience;

In other words, don't try to comfort me--not unless you've experienced what I have.  Otherwise, you can't possibly understand.

So, yes, in some ways I don't know what I'm talking about.  I have not suffered such a loss.  And I'm grateful that my imagination is too weak to accommodate me.

But I do know this: We can learn little or nothing from a dead man.  From a live one, perhaps, we can learn some things to help us prevent a sequel.  I far prefer that thought to the bloody image of a terrorist bomber paid back in kind.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 44

At the head of the basement stairs Father always kept one of those emergency flashlights plugged in.  Just as he was saying, “Vickie, get the flashlight,” I groped for it and switched it on.  I handed it to him.
“Careful now,” he said.  “Stay right where you are.  Let me get to the bottom—then I’ll shine the light on the stairs for you.”
Our basement stairs are very steep—but I knew them well.  I’d been up and down them countless times.  The shaky beam of light on the stairs told us that Father was ready—and he called to us.  “Okay, girls, take it very slowly.”  Harriet gripped my upper arm tightly.
We could still hear the wind howling outside.  At first it had sounded like a high-pitched moan.  Then it was more like a scream.  Now we heard what could have been heavy machinery—a truck, a bulldozer, maybe even a train.
As we reached the floor, Father pointed the light toward the far end.  “We’ll go down there,” he said, “and kneel against the wall.”
“Just like at school,” said Harriet, “during those stupid tornado drills.”  Her voice sounded tiny and hollow.
No one took those drills seriously—no one really believed that Franconia was important enough to be visited by a tornado.  But one was visiting now.  And it was apparently knocking on doors all up and down the street.
“Why don’t we go in there, Father?” I asked, pointing toward the locked room—the one I’d never been in.
“No!” he said sharply.  “There’s a window,” he explained.  “Flying glass.”  I looked at Father.  He’d just lied to me.  I’d played around the outside of our house for years; I knew there was no basement window on that side.  Why is he lying? I wondered.
When we reached the wall and knelt down in front of it, Father said, “I’m going to turn the flashlight off.  It’ll save the battery—in case we need it later.  But if you want me to turn it on at any time, just say so.”
And then we were in absolute darkness while the wind roared above us.  I touched the cool basement wall.  It was shaking.  I could hear a cracking sound.  The stones of the foundation were moving.

No one spoke, down there in the blackness.  Not for what seemed like a long while.  And then I heard Harriet whisper, “Vickie?  Are you scared?”
“Yes.  Are you?”
“So am I,” said Father.  “But we’re in the safest place we could be.”
I thought about that while the wind roared on.
And then—Is it my imagination?—it seemed quieter.  I waited.  Then I was sure.  It was quieter.  There was no question.
“Yes, I think it’s passed over,” he said.  “But let’s wait just a while longer before we go up.”
Beside me I could hear Harriet whimpering softly.  And gradually the wind died.  Soon, all we could hear was the pounding sound of the rain.
“I think we can go up now,” Father said.  “But let’s be careful.”  He switched on the flashlight.
He let Harriet and me go ahead while he lit our path, all the way to the top of the basement stairs.  “Watch out,” I warned.  “There’s jagged glass sticking right through the door.”  I remembered.
Gently, I released the latch and pushed open the door.  In the gray light of the stormy afternoon Harriet and I were the first to see what the tornado had done to our house.  In the parlor, where the basement stairs were, I felt rain on my head.  I looked up and saw the sky—right where the ceiling used to be.
“Oh, Father,” I groaned.
“We’re alive,” he said softly.  “We’re alive.”
And that—considering the damage I was seeing—was incredible.  Parts of walls were standing, some furniture remained.  But much was gone.  The second floor, the attic—gone.  Tables, chairs, couches—gone.  Our books—gone.  The tornado, like a vacuum cleaner, had sucked everything into the sky and dropped it… who knows where?
We stumbled outside …  But even the word outside did not have the same meaning.  Open to the sky and the weather, our house—what was left of it—was just about all outside. 
So I should say that we stumbled into the front yard, which was littered with debris from our house.  I saw the glint of something metallic.  A picture frame.  I bent over and picked it up.  It was the wedding picture of my parents.
“Harriet!” a voice screamed.  And we saw her mother running toward us.  “You’re okay!  You’re not hurt!”  And Mrs. Eastbrook swept Harriet up in her arms, hugging her so tightly she could not have answered—it was probably difficult enough for her to breathe.  Everyone was crying and shouting all at once.
Mrs. Eastbrook put her down, and with tears in her eyes, spoke to my father.  “Oh, thank you,” she cried, “thank you for saving my child.”  Over and over and over again she thanked him.  And hugged him.
I looked up and down the street in shock.
“Father,” I said.
He glanced over at me.
“The neighborhood … look at it.”
And for the first time he did.
No other house had been damaged.  They all stood there, untouched, while ours was a near total wreck.  I turned to look the other direction and saw our parlor couch perched on Harriet’s roof.  One of the pillows was still on it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

"I took notice, and done better."

When I was teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there was a moment when I always stopped and asked a question.  Here's the moment ...

In Chapter 10, Huck and Jim on are Jackson's Island.  Jim has run away, and Huck, too, has fled there to escape his father.  The boy has only recently learned that Jim is there, too, and they have, in a way, joined forces.  Their choreography is complicated on the island.  Huck has decided he wants to sneak back into town to see what's going on.  He knows that everyone thinks he's dead, but he wants to see if he can find out more.  He decides to go in disguise as a girl; he will use some clothing he and Jim found in an old house drifting along in the Mississippi River flood.  So he dresses up and "practiced around all day to get the hang of the things."

He's feeling pretty good about things--"only Jim said I didn't walk like a girl, and he said I must quit pulling up my gown to get at my britches pocket.  I took notice, and done better."

I took notice, and done better.

At that moment, I would always stop and sort of stare at the students.  (That always made them uncomfortable!)  Then I would ask what was so significant about that moment.  And soon--sometimes very soon--someone would say: Huck just took advice from a black man.

That's right.  Huck Finn--a poorly schooled little boy in ante-Bellum America, a white boy brought up in a most racist world, a boy who at the moment (and throughout the book really) wields enormous power over the life of Jim--listens to a runaway slave.

This is a key moment in Huck's moral growth, his dawning realization that Jim is a person.  Huck's moral progress is not steadily upward.  Like the rest of us, he stumbles, slides backwards, screws up.  But he makes progress.  By the end of the book he is no saint--not by any definition.  But he is a better person, principally because he takes notice, and does better--in so many ways.

We can learn a lot from Huckleberry Finn (and from Huckleberry Finn).  The boy has a most capacious heart--not just for those who are dear to him but even for people who don't really "deserve" his compassion.  He even feels sorry for those miserable reprobates, the King and the Duke, who have betrayed him and Jim in most egregious fashion.  Remember when he sees them, tarred and feathered?  At the end of Chapter 33?

Well, it made me most sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn't ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world.  It was a dreadful thing to see.  [And then, the famous line.] Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.

It's a hard thing, changing your mind--then changing your behavior.  Maybe the hardest task we face as human beings.  In these polarized days, changing your mind is perceived as weakness, as "waffling."  Or--appeasement.  Or craven.  Or worse.  Think of the awful price that politicians pay when they change their positions.  Sometimes, sure, it's just convenience and cowardice that prompt those changes.  But if we condemn and punish and label those who change, aren't we just making certain that change will be even more rare than it now is?

I try to avoid political talk-TV and talk-radio because I know what people are going to say before they say it.  No one listens.  No one budges a micron from his or her original position.  No one says to a question of the day, You know, that's a complicated issue we can examine from several points of view.  No, there is only one view--the party line--and anyone who argues the other side is just, well, you know, stupid and evil!

As has been evident in Congress in recent years (and days), no progress on anything is possible when both sides hew their positions out of adamant and refuse to alter a single molecule of their self-serving sculpture.

It's hard, too, to open our hearts to those we think don't really deserve our empathy and compassion.  It's hard to imagine ourselves in the positions of others.  But we have to try.  Otherwise, we become a culture of predators and prey.

So I say: Huck for President!  Jim for Senate!  They would listen to each other.  They would take notice--and do better.  And wouldn't that be refreshing?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 43

Father was most upset, though, by two things we’d told him—that there had been a giant version of Blue Boyle on the island and, even worse, that we’d glimpsed Aunt Claire there, too.  He just couldn’t accept these things, though I know he wanted very much to believe me.  I’d never lied to him, not really.
The mood in the car drew darker—more silent—as we drew closer to home, to Franconia.  And—appropriately—the sky was darkening, too.  Just to the west of us, black clouds were gathering, darkening the sun.  The headlights of our car popped on automatically.

I’d never seen Father drive so fast.
As soon as we’d heard the radio news about a tornado warning for our area, Father had accelerated to ten mph above the speed limit (he never drove over the limit).  He gripped the steering wheel hard, glanced anxiously at the sky.
As we neared our house, the rain began.  It was not a gentle shower.  Huge drops pounded the car, sounding as if someone were throwing handfuls of gravel at us.  Leaves and branches darted wildly across the lawns, across the streets.  Trash cans and rider-less bicycles tumbled after them, cartwheeling over and over in frantic pursuit.  The giant hand of the wind grabbed the branches of the tallest trees and violently bent them back and forth.  I’d never before seen the tops of trees touch the earth.
We barely stopped at one intersection where the traffic light overhead swung back and forth—like a berserk pendulum on a crazy clock.  The sky was now an ugly combination of colors—black, green, gold, purple.  I felt my ears popping and the air pressure was changing—lowering—dramatically.
“Run for the basement as soon as the car stops,” my father said quietly.
We did.  The wind was howling so loudly that I barely heard the crack of the old oak in our front yard, but I saw it topple right onto our car, crushing it, barely missing Father, who was right behind us.  The air smelled like sulfur, and the wind was like a huge hand, shoving us toward the house.
As we reached the front porch, I stopped and looked back to the west.  And I saw it.  A funnel cloud, like a dark twisted finger, was reaching down to touch the earth.[i]
“Look!” I screamed, and Harriet and Father turned to see it, too.

It was hard to tell how far away it was—a mile? a half-mile?  But it was not hard to tell that it was moving toward town, toward us.
I could hardly pull the screen door back the wind was so powerful, but I managed.  It took just the gentlest shove on the main door, and the wind blasted it backwards into the room where it smashed into the wall.  Somewhere in the house I heard things fall from the walls, crash to the floor.
Inside the house, Father leaned against the door and with all his effort and pushed it shut once again.
“Stay away from the windows!” he said grimly.  “Get to the basement!  Fast!”
We didn’t wait to be reminded.
Just as we closed the door behind us I heard windows crashing.  Something hit the door behind me with enormous velocity.  As Father and Harriet moved by me on the stairs, I looked just above my head and saw that some glass had punctured the door; a shard the size of an axe-blade was inches from my face.
The lights went out.

            [i] Ed. note:  Dozens of tornadoes raged along the Ohio Valley on July 4, 1995, causing much damage, injury, and death.  So it’s impossible to learn more about Vickie by studying the paths of the twisters.  Once again, however, her historical details are maddeningly accurate.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fragile--Handle with Care

Note: I started writing this before the horrible events at the Boston Marathon yesterday ...  I've decided to continue with it: It has a sad relevance ...

We've all broken things.

When I was in high school, I tossed a small pillow at my brother across the room, misfired, hit an antique lamp, whose gorgeous Tiffany shade cracked into three pieces the moment it hit the floor.  The lamp had been in my mother's family since her girlhood.  My mother was in the room when it happened.  In the past half-century she has reminded me of it, oh, a few thousand times.  And I've felt horrible--every time.  I feel horrible as I type today.

Later--I broke other objects, ever by accident.  Pieces of family china, glassware.  I recently dropped my beloved Mont Blanc pen on the floor, broke the nib.  I will not tell you how much it cost to repair.

Of course, we "break" other things throughout our lives, as well, don't we?  Hearts.  Friendships.  Relationships of all sorts.  I still remember something that happened with a couple of my eighth-grade students--friends since early childhood.  Someone intruded in their relationship--a boy.  They both liked him.  And their fast friendship, among the sturdiest I'd ever seen, broke in a heartbeat.  In the ensuing decades, no reconciliation has occurred, not that I know of.

My own heart shattered in the spring of 1963 when my long-time girlfriend, home on break from college, told me she'd found someone else.  Until I met Joyce six years later--and learned otherwise--I thought the injury was irreparable.  And so I learned: Hearts break easily, but there is one certain and enduring remedy.

Nothing is really very sturdy, you know.  A person slowly backing out of a driveway has ruined one of our cars.  A small deer totaled another--then limped off to die in the woods.  A flash across the sky signaled the ruin of the largest creatures that ever roamed the earth.  A Styrofoam cup can kill a whale.  In 1983, the great playwright Tennessee Williams accidentally inhaled the cap on a nasal spray and died alone in his hotel room (link to story).  Drops of alcohol killed Edgar Poe.  Invisible gas killed poet Sylvia Plath.  A fall on an icy sidewalk can cause us to limp for the rest of our lives.  Bicycle accidents can put us in wheelchairs.  A broken blood vessel can destroy the teeming worlds inside our skulls.  A moment's inattention can end all.

In the news in recent months have been stories about debilitating mental injuries suffered by NFL players, the most conditioned athletes of our time (link to stories).  A single, small piece of shrapnel can easily kill a highly trained and heavily armed soldier. Knee injuries end the careers of NBA players--ligaments so small you cannot see them from across the street.  A line drive ruined the career of Tribe pitching phenom Herb Score--not a second passed between the pitch and the practical end of all pitching.  Ice crystals brought down the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.  In 2008, a train engineer, texting, caused the worst rail crash in fifteen years (link to story). Oncologists cannot find the cells in my body that threaten my life.  Hiding in all our chromosomes are genes ticking like time bombs ...

We are such fragile creatures.  So helpless as we face the immense, disinterested forces of life.

And then, of course, what we've been doing to one another since the dawn of time.  When words fail, violence ensues.  Quickly.  And words have failed for so very, very long.  I cannot convince you--so I will hurt you ... no, I will kill you--and others around you.  Strangers.  You believe the wrong things.  You have somehow hurt me.  You worship the wrong god.  You vote the wrong way.  You wear the wrong clothing.  You speak the wrong language.  Your skin is the wrong color.  You love the wrong way.  You ...

 Rocks, clubs, knives, lances, swords, bayonets, bullets, bombs, missiles--all have found human flesh so surpassingly easy to damage, penetrate, destroy.  We have seen it so often this year.  We saw it again yesterday.  We will see it again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ...

I see no way to stop it.  Our minds are so fierce, our bodies so frail and fragile.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 42

We had to tell the story over and over again.  To the Coast Guard.  To the local authorities on Put-in-Bay.  And, as we hurriedly returned home with Father, we told the story again and again to him on the ferry, on the highway, at the restaurant where we stopped for lunch.  Again and again.  What we did.  What we saw.  What happened to us …

On the shore back at Green Island, someone on the Coast Guard vessel had bellowed through a bullhorn: Sir!  Put those girls down!  Put them down now!
Blue Boyle had just stared at them.
I’m warning you!  The voice again.  Put those girls down right now!
And Blue Boyd did—sort of.  He hurled us out into the lake—so far that we flew nearly all the way to the boat.  Impossible, I thought as I was whirling through the air.
But actual, I realized as I splashed for the second time that day into the cold waters of Lake Erie.  We were quickly picked up by a smaller boat, our hands freed, then covered with blankets and questions.
And how had the Coast Guard showed up so quickly?  Well, the partiers aboard the Don Juan had quickly discovered we weren’t on board.  The young man acting as captain—Harriet’s no-longer-future groom—had wanted to just sail on, forget about us.  Apparently he’d said something like, “Hey, no one knows they were with us.”
But all the others had shouted him down, so he headed right for the western shore of Put-in-Bay, just a straight mile from Green Island, site of South Bass Island State Park.[i]  They docked, ran up to the ranger headquarters, told him what had happened, and he promptly called the Coast Guard about two girls who had gone overboard near Green’s eastern shore.

Back on Put-in-Bay, talking with the Coast Guard, we told them what we’d experienced at the old lighthouse.  The laboratory.  The giant version of Blue Boyle.  The smells.  The pieces of once-living creatures.  I left out the quick reflection I’d seen of Aunt Claire.  Harriet had not seen her … so maybe I was just imagining things?
The officer who interviewed me—Commander Godwin[ii]—listened to our story with a familiar look on his face, the one that says You gotta be kidding me.  I’m sure he thought we were just imaginative kids who’d made up a stupid story to shift the blame and the attention onto Green Island and Dr. Eastbrook and away from us.
He asked us only a few questions:
“Did Dr. Eastbrook tell you what his plans were?”
“How can you be certain that the ‘large man’ you saw was a former classmate?”
We answered.
He shook his head.  “You should know, girls, that our officers reported seeing only a large man, not a boy.”
I tried to explain again.  But he wasn’t listening—he already knew what he thought.
“What do you think we’re going to find if we go out there, girls?  Do you know what it will mean if we find … nothing?”  He looked darkly at us, then mumbled something about the “nonsense” of “body parts.”
We both answered honestly.  Then he said, “You girls wait out in the hall.  I want to talk with Mr. Stone a little bit.”
Father was in the office for quite a while, and when he came out, I could tell he was not happy.  But I wasn’t sure of the source of his displeasure.

It didn’t take long to find out.  In the car, as we headed back to our hotel to pick up our things, we found out that his unhappiness had more than one source.
“How could you girls do that?” he asked.  “Sneak aboard a boat with people you didn’t know, then head off to places you weren’t sure of?”  These weren’t really questions.  More like accusations.
But Harriet, who had recovered her strength while standing up to her father, tried to take all the blame.  “It was all my fault, Mr. Stone,” she said.  “I made Vickie do it.”
He glanced at Harriet.
“I mean, I knew she wouldn’t let me go by myself—she’s too nice for that.  And so I did something horrible.  I know that she loves me, and I used that love to get what I wanted.  It was a rotten thing to do, and I hope someday that she—and you—will forgive me.”
Well, that silenced Father for a minute.  Me, too.

                [i] Ed. note: Vickie is correct about these geographical details.
                [ii] Ed. note: William Godwin was Mary Shelley’s father.