I am sitting in the garden. The evening is hushing, settling into the eaves. The mourning dove is calling. It’s time for people to think of getting into to bed, to sleep off the time remaining, the time Now in which we cannot see, this time when we must give over the earth to ostriches and owls.
Through the leafy shadows of the street floats a small fleet of trucks, sailing close to the curb. The trucks stop in front of the second house down. Men in almost fluorescent white T-shirts alight from the trucks, enter into their routine without speaking. They haul huge electric blue tarpaulins from the truck bed, large pressed wall-board, saw horses —load upon staggering load of what look like packages of black shingles. “Dave’s Roofing” is painted flamboyantly red on white on the largest of the trucks.
I am impressed. These are not workers for hire, counting the degrees of darkness. One of these men, at least, owns the roofing business, the trucks, has bought the materials, has come here at dusk to re-roof my neighbor’s house — in the cool. They swarm over the roof. In half an hour they have pulled the old black roofing into shreds, are down to the wood slats. They roll out tarpaper high on the steep of the roof.
In the gathering dusk, in the hush of the cooling, living garden, I am thinking of my daughter in the desert with her doctor husband and their twin sons. I am hoping they are happy. I am hoping, too, that at this moment they, too, are gathering in to themselves, slowing down for sleep. But of course they won’t be. They are in a different time –nap time, not long-sleeping time. The day is at its rampage in the desert.
Multiple births are unusual in both my daughter’s and her husband’s families. Still, there they were, Ying and Yang in the womb of my daughter, bent to the spirit of each other --life all over again. When they were born, my daughter, a lawyer, was stunned in love with them. Seemingly with no knowledge or caring of her mother watching her, she fed her babies with her body, lay them one by one in the cradle of her thighs, stared into their souls. I had done the same with her, felt the starlight fallen into my hands, knowing I was going to falter, stunned with frailty.
The men on the roof are ack-ack-ack-acking — a repeating stapler, like a machine gun. They will finish the roof before dark night.
Dear God, may time be smooth and full before my daughter and her husband and her twins and —
nbsp; —Who is it I am thinking of? Who is it who has been on the roof? —The telephone lineman who fell off a pole, who gave a speech about putting a roof on a camp on the day that —
I was teaching speech —not that I knew much about teaching speech, but because I was the only teacher walking down the hall ten minutes before classes were supposed to start, and the dean tagged me. I was, as the terminology goes, ‘a warm body.’
So there I was, facing a classroom full of people. “This is a speech class,” I told them. “You are going to give speeches. They stared at me.
Students in a summer night class in a community college are mostly adult. They’ve been working all day. They want to get ahead —no pun intended, but there it is. In the introductions all around, the man who said his name was Dave told us he had been a telephone lineman before he fell from a pole. Now he was being “retrained,” as the process is called, though training is for machines and lower animals, not for what approaches Man. —This Dave was being made fit to push papers at a desk inside four close walls of an airless cubicle that he was really going to hate for the rest of his life.
“In our speeches, what do you want us to say?”
“You are to speak about what you know –something that has happened to you, some lesson you’ve learned” The room was absolutely silent. This was going be really fruitful.
“You mean a story? About something that happened to us?”
“I’ll cut you off after two hours if you’re not dead yet. Tell the story. Tell the story of what happened to you. Flesh out the story. Who are the characters in your story? Do they whistle? Do they say ain’t and don’t have none? Do they repeat themselves? Do they repeat themselves?”
“That’s real funny,” said a woman who at the same time was looking frantically at her books, wondering if she dared break for the door.
“Yeah, That’s real funny,” said someone else.
They sort of laughed.
“Yeah, and what’s funny about your story?” I asked.
“Jeez, you didn’t say it had to be funny!”
“All right, so what’s sad about your story?”
“It has to be sad and funny?”
“What’s different about it? — What’s interesting?”
“—What if it’s not interesting?”
“Does it interest you?”
“If it interests you, it will interest all of us.”
“—My dog is pretty interesting —sometimes.”
“Can you tell a story about your dog?”
“Yeah, I can tell a story about my dog! —Which one?”
“The story that makes you laugh.”
“My dog died.”
“The story that makes you cry.”
The man who had told us his name was Frank, looked around at the other people. He didn’t want to cry in front of these people.
“All right,” I said, “How about something freakish?”
“Like his dog had two heads!” someone offered.
They all laughed.
“Tomorrow,” I said. “Here. Same time. I guarantee you five minutes. If you put us to sleep, the story wasn’t any good.”
“What if it’s a bedtime story?”
“Yeah, what if it’s a bedtime story?”
They all laughed.
“Can we read it?”
“One card of notes, big print.”
“Holy wah! What if I ferget wot I wiz talkin about while I’m talking?”
“It’s your story —how can you forget your own story? —And it’s got to be clean and it’s got to be good English!”
“Aw, Jeez!” they said.
I had them. They might even be coming back.
The next evening they were back. If these people had been made of wire, we would have had a concert in high C.”
“Let’s go,” I said. “First person’s the bravest, first story’s the hardest.”
“I’ll go first,” said the telephone lineman. “Do I have to stand up?”
“Right here,” I motioned him to the podium and stepped aside.
The crippled ex-lineman brusqued by me to get safely behind the podium. He had fortified himself with whiskey. He clutched the podium.
“My name —” His voice squeaked.
Titters from the class.
My name is David –Dave,” he said.
“—And I’m an alcoholic,” someone finished.
Everyone laughed but Dave. “Awright, awright. My name’s Dave. I was a lineman. I climbed poles.”
Laughter rippled into a twister and left the ground.
That was even funnier.
“–Awright, I got a story here.”
“Yeah? What’s it about?”
“Enough,” I said.
Dave took a deep breath. “Well, actually, I didn’t need to tell you that. I mean the poles. That part don’t matter. The story really starts when I was helping a couple buddies a mine build a camp. We was workin and drinkin beer, you know, and workin away and the sun shinin on us, and so there I was, and the two of em on the roof, you know, shinglin – you know how it is –and I’m standing off like this, lookin at it – and we’d been workin real hard, and there I was standin off, like—”
Dave put his hands on his hips, arms akimbo, squinting.
The class wanted to prod him.
I frowned at them from my seat beside and in back of Dave.
He was stuck.
I prodded him. “What happened?”
“Time’s up!” exclaimed Frank in the second row.
I started to get up, to intervene a second time, but stopped. Their interest had regathered itself, was wrapping itself around Dave. He had said, “I was just standin there.”
In front of us, in the classroom, he was in the clearing —really there —standing just like that in the slant of sun, squinting into the lowering sun of afternoon.
“—We was gonna make it. We was gonna get the roof on by the time the sun went down. – I was just standin there.”
He broke concentration, looked down at his single note card, traced on it with his finger.
“Yeah. Well, that’s when it happened. I felt kind of funny, ya know? Like, what was I doin standin here? –I should be somewhere else. I remember walkin toward the clearing. –Like I had to get to the clearing. So I did. And that’s where the whole thing – what I remember –goes blank. – I remember thinkin, well, I wonder why I done that. Maybe I had ta take a leak, you know?”
The class shifted their attention to me. As Teacher, I modestly lowered my eyes.
“But no. Nothin. There was the sun — hot afternoon. About 3 o’clock. And then, while I was just standin there, wondrin what I was doin there, my head jerked up –like I been asleep, standin on my feet. Jeez, I thought, maybe I got to take a leak –all that beer and all – and then I thought, ‘Well, guess I better get back. So I did.”
Dave was silent.
The class stirred.
“That’s your story?”
“Oh, no. That ain’t it, yet.” He sort of laughed. “I forgot. – So I started walkin toward the camp, and then I got back to camp, but the guys was inside now, and the sun was down, so I went inside, because they got the door up now, and the guys looked at me, and they say, ‘Holy Aich Christ! Where’d you go to?’
“And I said, ‘Nowhere.’
“‘Yeah, well, we got the whole roof finished while you was gone!’
“‘Aw,’ I says, and I climbed up under the roof where we said we was goin to sleep, and they was grousin down there, and I sat on a mattress up there and unlaced my boots, and then I pulled down my pants – and funniest damn thing you ever saw!”
The class exploded.
I put my forehead in my hands, closed my eyes.
But then Dave caught them again. He hadn’t even heard the explosion. He was looking down at his crotch.
“There on my leg, on the inside a my leg —there was just enough light comin through the chinks —a little circle about this big — ” and he made a circle for us between his index finger and thumb. “—Just like that. So I reach for a flashlight, and I shine it down there on my leg – It’s a circle, but it’s not a circle. I mean, nothin was drawin the circle, like no black line was behind it. But a circle. And so I look at it real close. And it’s made up of little red dots, like the little red dots you get when they stick you with the TB thing – all those little needles in a circle—only bigger. A perfect round.”
This time I did get up. “Where did you get that story, Dave?”
“Get it? I didn’t get it. And it ain’t a story — it happened!”
He didn’t look as if he were telling a joke. And I was not supposed to be interrupting. “Okay, what happened then?”
“Nothin happened then. Well, maybe somethin happened. Later —”
I was standing beside him now, my arms folded like a prison guard.
“—Couple months later. I was at the Milwaukee Zoo, see, with the wife – and the kids. And I was standin there, a kid on both sides of me—and I got the same feelin.”
“Did you hear a voice?” I was in violation – I was, I admit it. A teacher should never interrupt a student’s speech, should never interject —
“No. —Just a feelin.”
“What was the feeling?”
“Like, well, yeah, okay, I guess it was like a voice, but it’s in my head.
“What’d it say?”
“Like it said,‘Go to the clearing’ — but it wasn’t a voice like out here,” he said, gesturing on the outside of his ears.
“—Was there a clearing you could have gone to?
“I don’t know. We was at the zoo. There’s people all over the place!”
“What did you do?”
“I grabbed hold of a kid —each hand.”
“I held on.” His eyes were wide open, staring, his arms at stiff angles to either side.
“It went away. —After awhile, it went away.”
“Dave, I’m willing to overlook a few little grammar errors and what not, but I want you to tell me something.”
“Where’d you get that story?”
Dave looked at me as if I had crawled out from under a rock. “I didn’t get it nowhere! You said to tell a story about somethin that happened. So it happened! It’s my story!”
He took his seat among the class.
Then, “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I forgot,” and he moved his desk out of row, so he had a command not only of the class, but of me. “—I was sorta watchin one of them TV shows one night? –You know? – and there was this blond lady looked like she got stuck in a wind storm, and she was talkin about flying saucers—”
My heart sank.
“And the guy — what’s his name. C’mon —You know his name—”
“Giraldo,” groaned the class, their heads propped in their hands.
“Yeah, that guy. Well, the guy says to her, ‘I think you got a story about these flying saucers?’
And she says, ‘It was just one flying saucer. I was only ever in one flying saucer.’
And he says, ‘You claim to be an abductee?’ —kidnapped is what he meant—and so Blondy there tells all the people in the chairs there the story, and when she’s done, Giraldo says, ‘You got any proof?’ And the audience all kind of laughed, you know, like this lady’s supposed to have a ticket stub or somethin, and she’s kind of lookin at him, and she says, ‘Yeah.’
‘What,’ he says.
‘On my body –afterwards –I had this –mark – ’
My heart stopped beating.
‘Oh, yeah?’ says this Giraldo. ‘Where on your body?’
And she says, ‘Mister, you don’t want to know.’ –and so, you know, everbody is laughing.
“And then this Giraldo asks her, ‘You saw it, though? —You saw the mark?’
‘If I didn’t see the mark, how come I’m sittin here tellin you about it?’ she says.
And he just sort of looked at her, and then he says, ‘Well, what’d it look like —the mark?’
‘It was a circle,’ she said. ‘A little round red circle. But not quite. I mean it wasn’t a continuous line of a circle —more like little red dots in a circle.’”
Dave blinked at the class. “The only difference between her and me is that she remembers, and I don’t.”
“You don’t remember what?” I asked.
He looked around at me. “I don’t know.” He gestured at his head. “It aint here!”
“Dave,” I said, I’ll give you an A on that speech if you tell me you made it up.”
“No way!” said Dave.
Well, we got through the rest of the two-hour class. Everybody stood at the podium and told a story. I don’t remember a word they said. On my way out to my car, I stared at my feet. They were walking. There was the toe of my new blue clogs that I got in advance with the spending money I allowed myself for teaching this class – and here – or there —comes the toe of the other shoe —right on time, same rhythm as the first one, one after the other —because — just because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
In my car, I drove into the cool evening of the just-setting sun.
When my daughter, who was, at the time that Dave the telephone lineman fortified himself to tell his story in an evening class in a community college in the north woods —when my daughter was a rebellious teenager looking for the shortest way into reform school—huge black felt cowboy hat, tattoo, bleached hair, no eyebrows —the daughter who might or might not be home when I got there —when that daughter was a new baby lying in her crib (and though I’m sure my memory must be fooling me) —when she was sick, had a fever, was red — a doctor came into that room where her crib was, even though doctors don’t make house calls anymore, haven’t made house calls for years —so that part must be wrong—but in my memory I am seeing that doctor in a white coat in my daughter’s bedroom, looking at her, and she is a new baby and he is asking me what she has eaten.
“She’s breastfed,” I told him, surprised that he thought she was old enough to eat.
And the doctor said, “Odd.” He was looking at her tiny ear lobe. “Look at that,” he said. “See that? —a tiny red ring — little red dots in a circle.”
“Oh, that!” I told him. “I’ve got one of those, too. I saw it in the mirror this morning when I was brushing my teeth.” And I showed him the little red dots in a circle on my ear lobe. “Is it still there?”
“Yes, he says, and feels my forehead. “No fever,” he says.
“No, I say. She’s got the fever.”
“Odd,” he says. “Well, what have you been eating?”
“Same as always,” I say.
That’s not the end of the story. When my daughter was in law school, in the middle of law school, my daughter took out a year to deal with her own mind, and she dreamed a dream: She was facing a closet door. It was closed. After hesitating, she opened it. Inside were tiny furry creatures, lying on their backs in a row— newborn creatures behind the closet door—and above them, printed on a scroll-like banner, printed in capital letters are the words: NEW LIFE FORMS.
“—Do you remember, when you were little,” I ask her — for we are speaking on the phone, and she is still in law school — “the little people you kept with you?”
“What little people,” she says deadpan, the way her voice gets whenever I bring up a load of quicksand for her to step in.
“The little people. When you drew a picture of the first one, he looked like a jackal — like Osiris.”
“He did? Oh, yeah, he did! —Tell me again what Osiris is.”
“Osiris is the Egyptian god of the dead.”
“Oh, yeah. I remember. —I didn’t know he was Osiris.”
“First you had —do you remember his name?”
“Do you remember the others?
“Boos and Tink?” She laughs at her recognition. “What’d I tell you they looked like?”
“You never said.”
– A tired cheer, and silence. The roofers drop like heavy dark fruit to the ground. The roof glows red in the shadows.
Dave clung to his children in the Milwaukee Zoo.
The woman with hair like an avenging angel said, “Why would I be here if I wasn’t tellin you the story?”
My daughter is a matron, in the desert with her husband, with her infant sons.
And dusk settles downward like a flat red roof collapsing,
collapsing day —little red dots forming a curved line against which time,
like bread rising,
has all the time expanded,
bulged, made vast vacancies
between Time and Time —
And what we thought was sacrosanct,
What we thought was flat, was safe,
is little red dots in a circle —
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