Ash and Rain
When Amish buggies clop by along Back Orrville Road, I think of the Donkers and Onderdonks my mother’s mother almost married into. Sumac and wild ash saplings sprout from barns collapsed in fields that farmers close to town have abandoned. How can faith prevail over economic forces? My grandmother the German brewer’s daughter ran from Cincinnati’s spinning mills at seventeen to be a rich folks’ nanny in
old-money New York. She never went back home and her father’s brothers’ hop fields by the Ohio River have long since been paved over. In Amish fields, blond Belgian draft horses lean into their yokes and the furrows open. My grandmother returns in my own future ash and rain.
Under black hats and the wide-brimmed sky of early summer, Amish farmers put their hands to their ploughs and look ahead into the new century’s uncertain weather.
—for my maternal grandmother, Mary Klenk Lee (1890?-1977)
“I think everyone fails.” —E.M. Forster
Love doesn’t solve much. She’s been around with the spin doctors long enough on that one. But love might make it easier to label all the boxes, and decide which country she should live in.
Take Sohrab now. Just back from his hermitage in the oldest mountains on tectonic plate, and she down from a borrowed cottage in the bourgeois pines, taking a taxi from Port Authority to his door.
Embraces, gifts, then what? He shows her his Chelsea loft— beaded curtains and shadow puppets, gilt chandeliers over the bathtub, porcelain angel statuettes with their heads knocked off. Industrial dust coating the shelves, eviction warnings for the real tenant piling up under the steel-banded door. Sohrab’s heart has gone from sublet to sublet. She’s got only herself to count on.
She wishes she could help him figure out his scattered life. Books and clothes upstate, tenure eroding under a North Shore campus’s budgetary tides. His loves, his languages, his Towers of Silence half a planet’s girth away on a subcontinent fractured along its caste lines.
Not even Sohrab knows the answers. When they met, he played Schubert for her and said he’d never been good at team sports. They never got beyond the first embraces: the simple kind that could have led to anything. Now he sprawls on the bed on his side of the partition. There’s always been a row of theatre seats between them.
What does it mean? She’s not so unhip. She’s read her Forster, she knows what’s insinuated by the dedication in that book. Sohrab’s the mystery man: hands moving in actor’s gestures as he talks, nights he drops off the social radar screen, and comes back late, avoiding her eyes.
He praises her for her directness. She spends the whole visit dropping the names of repertory companies and famous poets, marking manuscripts under the antique lamp, following the phone cord like a river to its unreported source: the one thing she can’t bring herself to ask him.
Just as well. In love, there’s no advantage to her passport or her skin, her ease with languages or her willingness to listen. And Sohrab’s in his own world. He’s learned to live, he says, with questions he can’t answer.
He has years of empty waiting rooms and stand-by tickets ahead of him. Before he sleeps, he ties a white cord around his waist to pray: a circlet charmed by his fear of contagion. She knows she’ll be gone soon. And how foolish should she feel, so expert at misreading signals that others put up with her anyway?
Pagan Panegyric: Eulene
Astrology beats Christianity. Crystal balls, Astarte’s diaphanous veil-dance, outstrip evangelism’s empty heft. How so? First, you high priestesses of cybershopping get to keep your Maybelline and miniskirts, hotpants and go-go boots, da-glo posters of Elvis, Iron Butterfly and Cream, weekends with your rockstar studbucket just back from the Moondog Big Bang Coronation Ball and Kowabunga Bluesfest, getting it on in his Malibu Beach cabaña, with Lovebeads dripping from bedposts, and lava lamps’ cherry and erotic butterscotch undulations moving in mirror-syncopation to your love-thrusts. Who could have it better? No way to beat those odds, or press the juice from those sacrimonious grapes on the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane’s penultimate regrets, next door to which Pilate washes his hands in silver fingerbowls and asks the Pharisees if there are any further questions. The graybeards shrug, resume their dovening, folding their grievances into the oldest human grief. Meanwhile, the ragged-haired non-union actor drags his plywood cross through the studio backlot’s Via Dolorosa dust like the real simulacrum. Only groans, no lines hence no residuals for this redeemer, though his part’s the crux and epicenter of the whole millennial passionfall. Between scenes, he smokes in trailer- shade, reads Tarot for future gigs. Hanged man and hierophant unmask his dangerous luck. Aw, chuck it, he thinks. Make up with Eulene (amateur bellydancer playing Magdalene). In her bungalow at Venice Beach, they used to ball in palm-fringed sunlight spilling onto Javanese floormats. Then his jug band’s touring schedule revved, he wanted his space, cancelled their romance like maxed-out credit cards. Her anguish loomed, Cassandra keening over nuclear ruins, until the set of this X-Files induced fantasy of alien abduction back to 33 a.D., Magdalene a cyborg who’d washed that Son of Man right out of her hair. You’d think Hollywood would learn — what happened in ancient days keeps happening: Magdalene loves Jesus; Eulene, Dwayne. At least Jesus has a higher calling: the Zeitgeist on High zaps him from the marriage canopy, Eulene sobs tomb-side in her zodiac-print veil. Now what? Stay tuned for next week’s thrilling revelations!