My Work

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Letter to Dr. M.

The Southern Review, Autumn 2014

Dear Dr. Maddingly, I’m writing
to let you know I took
seriously your admonition
not to go running for at least
three weeks until whatever the
vitreous jelly stuff that’s
making those gray shadows tree branches
flashing lights in the peripheral
vision of my right eye gets settled. In order
to prevent serious retinal problems
that require surgery. I did the
following alternate exercises:
riding—you did say I could
go riding—my friends and I laughed
at the stable about how you probably
OK’d riding because you don’t
know what it is. Most people
seem to think it’s sitting on a
horse! Ha ha! We love picturing
those people on a horse—or
my favorite—we love picturing
our bosses on horses!
How about riding a horse
in a tornado? I forgot to
ask about that. Restraining the
horse I just hopped
off of during the actual
blast as she stood on her
hind legs and waved her
forelegs. (I was in an indoor
arena, a barn—that counts for
something, right?) Or tornadoes
in general. Or rescuing
horses in a debris-strewn
windy pasture in the dark
after. Who are hysterical
and afraid. I hear today
the other side of the
arena was “badly damaged”—
would that be “torn off”? I didn’t
even see it, though I heard
a splintering crashing noise
that activated the
“This could be it” idea. My
therapist asked what I was
thinking. I said I was concentrating
on taking care of Ruth’s beloved
Vaydran, who is a pet who is
sweet, if obsessed with food,
and was frightened. I think
I thought I might end up under
a pile of lumber (my personal
euphemism, I guess) with her.
And I thought okay but was
ashamed that I had for this
one stupid time only not been
vigilant about warnings and even
more ashamed later when I
learned there had been twenty-five-plus
tornadoes in my area. That’s when
I learned shame would
probably be with me
at my death—my
default setting. Saliva
tears snot and the sense that
I’d done something irreparable.
The other thought in there
somewhere was that my accounts
were cleared, fairly, and “my
side of the street” was
clean. You see I was thinking
of my friend Karin who lay
in cardiac critical care
on life support—but with her
(heavily sedated) brain intact—
I was pretty ass angry about
that and not thinking one
speck about my retina
and its goo.
And then, Zumba—you didn’t
mention. I did it Saturday
after I’d learned about the induced
coma and today
after I learned she had died.
I went to Indianapolis to see her
yesterday. I forgot about
my retina! I swear
she knew me—my voice—
and was responding with
her eyebrows forehead
and chin. Had the nurses lightened
up her pain meds, or . . . ? I told
her I thought she would
make it. Denial has
its value though it does
make me forget to baby
my eye and to think
strictly of the letter of
the law rather than
the spirit when it comes
to your restrictions. Zumba is
fantastic! It is pure joy.
I knew it was the totally
right thing both times I
went. I tried not to jump.
I did the tossing yes
and a lot of pelvic
it made me think of when
I was twenty and took modern dance
in a storefront on Magazine
Street in New Orleans with
a six-four sexy guy teacher and a live
conga drummer. My legs were
so long—as tonight—it
took me a split second
longer to swing them around
and up and down and I had to
compensate. The whole street
could see us and I didn’t care.
I’m in that mood now
too. Sixty and going to
get a shorter haircut so I can do more
sweaty things and wash it
in the shower anytime I
feel like it. So I can smell
like horse as often as I get
the opportunity. I truly
hope the Jell-O
is settling or recongealing
or whatever it’s supposed
to do. I’ll be in to let
you shine that huge lens
with the shocking
light behind it in there
and have me swivel
my eye to each of the numbers
on an imaginary
clock face to check it. Like you told
me to do when I was
in a week ago. Only a
week! (Look how hard
I’ve tried to obey.) And two more
to go. I don’t think I’ll
be able to invent
anything else to bend the
rules. Joy, Dr. M. Joy! The body!
I love your soft hands on my
face. Your voice. I’ve always
loved you. More about
that later. Yes, I’m still
seeing a few shadow branches
and twigs dangling around
my visual windshield. In the deep
dark of my right peripheral
vision, some brilliant meteor showers.
Let me tell you, Tom (may
I call you Tom?), I got lucky
twice. The tornado.
And landing in my friend’s one
conscious window. No one
can explain that. Her sighs,
the movement of her chin,
her raised eyebrow and
her wrinkled forehead. The
sighs showed up on the
breathing monitor and there was
occasionally a skipped
heartbeat (“not atypical”
the call nurse said). Karin, I waited
for Joe, the nurse I liked,
“your” nurse, to return from
lunch because I felt the nurse
in the hall screwing around with
a laptop was not adequately
solicitous. She said some woman
managed to get through on the phone
from Michigan. The woman said you
were driving by one day
and saw her Chow attacked
by some pit bulls—and stopped and
saved him/her. She heard you
were ill and wanted to inquire.
I didn’t tell you. I wanted
you to myself. I inscribed a cross
on your forehead as a priest
taught me to do a long time
ago, then apologized—
you weren’t big on God.
I had two lucky opportunities.
In the cross hairs of
bad weather and the Cardiac
Critical Care Unit. I don’t
know why. I don’t
believe in a personal favor
kind of god. Love
and Godspeed to you Karin.
And Dr. M., Tom, I’ll try
not to get in any more
trouble—will take it all
in the hips, rather than jumping
up and down, in Zumba,
and ride a horse just by sitting there
as you must have envisioned—will
see you in two weeks, after
the holidays, the travel,
my friend flying along beside
me, as she did in life, I don’t
doubt, and you somewhere
waiting with your clock face,
your lovely kind voice and
soft steady hands, peering
into my eyes’ dark depths
with your “opthalmoscope,” I
just found out it’s called, its
searching magnifying light.


What Did the Animals Know and When Did They Know It?
Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4, 2005

I kept the secret well.
A tsunami had struck Southeast Asia
and 43,000 people were killed. That’s


what they said at first, somewhat
loudly, somewhat pointedly, somewhat unmistakably,
on the radio, on the day after Christmas.


But the girls were playing
Yahtzee, or watching that hilarious Fawlty Towers
video for the nth time, or


practicing their dance steps, or doing
each other’s hair, or toasting s’mores through the
side door of the woodstove,


the Christmas tree winking
at us from the other room, not yet as dry
as tinder, and though


I didn’t turn the radio off—and
it kept going on and on, the steady accretion of
horrific detail—it somehow


couldn’t compete with their
industrious pursuit of the funny video, or the
violin, their absorption


in the s’mores, or whatever
it was that they were doing. I didn’t
turn it off; I let it talk


alongside them, wondering
when they would notice, sort of incredulous
that they hadn’t, but not wanting


to stop them, to say something.
Now, reading the Wall Street Journal
today, a week later,


I realize that they, like the antelope
stampeding the shoreline in the state
of Tamil Nadu—ten minutes


before the tsunami hit—or the elephants,
leopards, deer, and other wild animals
who escaped unharmed in Sri Lanka,


had already found high land,
a little island, that
would not break. You see,


I wasn’t just keeping
the secret of the tsunami. There was something
else in the house. How often


I’d wished they’d overhear,
preferably my side of the story, so that I would not
have to know alone. But my girls had


already proceeded inland.
They were balancing on their new exercise
balls from Borders, watching John


Cleese, as Basil Fawlty—with the
woman in the video, “Polly,” the maid, who in real
life was, for a long while, at least,


his wife—his helpless antics
in the face of events that he couldn’t control,
events that became all the more


idiotic and perverse, as he
tried to twist them in service of his petty pride
and vanity, and we all died


with laughter watching him,
balancing on our balls, holding our secrets
in our mouths like big marbles.


Father Dan says the shepherds
who went to see the baby Jesus were
dirty. Dirty! I never


saw that in a whole
lifetime of eyeing crèches. Big
ones in churches, tiny ones


on mantle pieces, poster board
2-D cutouts in the flatbed
of a parked pickup,


lit-up, downtown, next to the
courthouse. They’d always looked
crisp as though


they’d just had showers—nor
was there any poop
in the straw—that goes


without saying. Mary was of
course immaculate, Joseph pressed,
and so on. The sheep’s woolly white coats


were not stained. Father Dan’s
proclamation, and he is always
talking about reversals


in the story of Jesus,
brought to mind the muddy
portobello cap I found in


Marsh Supermarket and bought to
take into my class, hoping someone would
choose it from among the odd


vegetables and fruits—radicchio,
red onion, Belgian endive, chicory, lemon, papaya,
turnip or sweet potato—to


write about. It was so dirty
there was really no
hope of it ever getting


clean, like those
sexy mechanics, who replace your u-joint and
you think, so sexy and so dirty,


what woman lets him get in
bed with, put his hands on, her?
I loved the stubbornness


of the moon-surfaced, pocked,
cratered mushroom cap. Because I was
about to lose my job. Someone


cleaner, someones cleaner
and less problematic were being brought in
to interview, and, man, by comparison


to my “performance,” it was
obvious either one of them
would function like a well-oiled


machine. Making work disappear
rather than making work. Who can blame
my colleagues for wanting them? For panting


slightly, lips parted, when
anticipating their visits, as if watching
an ice-dancing or gymnastics competition?


Jesus did not compete, Father Dan
said it today. He said his addresses to the
Pharisees, and so on, were not like


our current president’s “thank you”s
to the voters and fundraisers at the State
of the Union address. Yet, I like my job,


like bringing in homely vegetables
for my students to write about,
even if no one chooses the bad-ass


stubborn mushroom
and they turn instead to the firm
carambola, starfruit;


they grab my sharp
knife and cut the ribbed dirigible crosswise
into perfect star-shaped slices,


offer them around, well-oiled
little vehicles of wonder, of night,
of royal beauty bright.



My mother doesn’t
like me nosing into her life
in the afterlife


any more than she
liked me nosing into it
in this one. Witness, the


ratcheting buzz of the cicada—
that’s her way of saying,
Bug off.


Josie gets to do it. Her mother
loved her. She made a little shrine
with a skull knife


on it and her mother
knocks the knife down, says hello. My mother
teases me with thistle fluff,


wafting by my windshield
as I sit stalled in traffic on I-94
in Chicago. I am dying


to go to the bathroom, creep
inch by inch for two hours. Thistledown,
nonchalant fairy, drifts unharmed


between the twin axles
of a Mack truck. On the prairie,
my mother lures me into watching


the beautiful dragonfly,
brown bars embossed on its
glistening transparent wings,


its little white lobster
tail curled under; she lets me think it
a shining emissary from the


other world, then laughs
when I open the folklore
reference book and discover


that the dragonfly, often known
as the “mosquito hawk,”
is also nicknamed “the Devil’s


darning needle” and likes to
sew children’s mouths shut—their noses, ears,
and whole heads, too, if


necessary—when they speak
out of turn. Likewise, the bronze diamond-patterned
snake reclining in the path—


she lets me mull that one
over, as I leap three feet in the air.
The orange monarch with black


and white spotted regal
head resembles her. It lands on a sprig
of golden rod, looks at me


priggishly, asks me to pay
obeisance. The petals of each lavender cone flower
chirp love me, love me not through the


whole damned meadow. I never end up
with the petal I want. Goldfinches follow their
zigzag radar, while I lurch off


in search of the new ripe
blackberries my mother leaves for me
every day on the bush


under the horse chestnut.
Then suddenly a bramble pops
up from the path


and hooks my leg:
“Do you think it’s a picnic
here in the Bardo?”


Purple lupine, black-eyed Susans.
The shining hip-high grass. Coming around
a curve in the newly


mown path, I flush a flock
of wood thrushes. Among them is a blue bird—
gorgeous, preternatural.


I remember the new
black silk pantsuit I wore at my mother’s
funeral, as if I could ever


approach the dead’s
iridescent splendor. I hear the sound of
birdcall, my mother’s


laughter, watch the exotic
bluebird vanish down the creek bed
into the thicket of


the other world,
leaving me to choke
on the dust of this.