Authors: Harold Brodkey
It is Homeric and not Tantric, the way the erotic and the spiritual merge in Ma; but if you use school ideas of things, the erotic is a matter of grasp and idea—that is, a demystification of feelings for the sake of excitement—and it is not spiritual at all: it is merely modern, then. Feelings reside in art and in sex but not in school, unless perceptions and illusions are counted as feelings, which is what Ida does and Ma wants to do—things coming out even, correct answers, being perfect: Ida wants those and the sense of those and the appetite for those to be counted as feelings. Ma is another
, but she has schoolish yearnings.
The reason school is the way it is is that in a classroom there is only one teacher, one power: a tyranny …
In life, there are always at least two people, or you can’t call it life.
“If I said now Ida is my friend, you’d agree, but if I acted on it, woe is me, and that’s where the trouble starts.” Ma says this hastily, as if S.L. might walk in any moment, but then she slows down and finishes saying it in a stately, melodious way. But her mouth and eyes are sultry—are gusty with feeling; she is so complicated now that no scientific theory can be as hard to unravel as her mood is. She is epically grownup in this way.
Ida, with a curious thwacking gesture of her knees against each other, matches Momma in complexity: she may now be the most grownup person in the world. “Let’s not go into what’s wrong. I don’t believe in diagrams,” Ida says. Lightly.
Ma says, “If we were a friend to one another, I could take you for granted and you wouldn’t put up with that for one second.”
Ida does not dawdle when she thinks. She takes the hurdle. “That’s brilliant. Your seeing that. Listen: You
take me for granted.”
Now that I am brilliant.
Ma thinks Ida ought to, and will, love her
Ida already “loves” her—that’s all been settled. Ida says in a dignified, faintly disgusted way, “I
Momma says, “Then I have no say in it—” Now she sees the trap clearly.
“I say someone is my friend when I say so. If you mean one word of it, tell me—you went to Switzerland with Colleen Butterson—that was the word that went out—what was that all about? Tell me if we’re good friends now.”
“Lilly—” Ida says, in a whole other voice.
Don’t be silly. Don’t break the law
Ma bursts into an angry laugh—angry because she doesn’t want to be
“You want me to sign a blank check. We have rules around here—and no one makes them up.”
makes them up, is what that means.
that the truth now between her and Ida (the atmosphere of
equality) is that Momma is a fool for trying to impose her own sense of truth on a woman as firm-hearted as Ida.
Ida says, in an intelligently threatening (and wanly disillusioned) voice, “We don’t give pledges, Lilly. We trust each other.” A different law. A notion of law different from Lila’s. Then: “Are we mad?” Ida says, summing up and taking over. “No. Yes.” A witty joke. A party atmosphere. It is clear that in some ways Ida is a nicer person than Lila is. Than my mother.
Momma laughs. “
the rain,” she says naughtily—it’s an intentionally clumsy imitation of Ida.
Ida doesn’t laugh right away. Momma starts to breathe
and she says meaningfully (her way), “It makes my pioneer hair frizzy.”
“Oh, Lila,” Ida says, relieved. Then she laughs.
Lila’s self-satisfaction begins to glow again. “I can’t keep up with you,” she complains. A touch of wit, maybe.
Neither has the sought-for command of the erotic at this juncture, but that works out in Ma’s favor, since Ma can live in erotic chaos and Ida can’t.
Momma’s momentum carries her along: “I’ve lived my life in small towns. You have Paris and St. Louis.”
Ida stares for a small second, locating what is meant, getting the point. Ida says, “What is wanting in Alton is naughtiness—madness—but there’s not much more in St. Louis. You’d find it dull, Lila.”
Lila thinks of Ida’s excitements and naughtiness as being open to her now as soon as she
learns the passwords If I bother.
Momma smiles faintly—maternally. Ma pants:
It is an effort to keep up with Ida—she’s a real flier.
“I’m not a dreamer,” Momma says aloud, almost idly, commenting on the contest.
Ida says, “It must be terrible to be without daydreams. We would die in this town without our—don’t repeat this—
Momma suddenly blows Ida a kiss. Everyone knows that Ida always gets even. Then Momma rises: a swirl of heat—the thin, finely curved legs, the pale, night-framed face, the paled, used lipstick (from drinking and smoking), the extreme prettiness of the woman—gusts around the porch. Ma hears a thump like that of a car door—she lifts her head toward the porch roof—then she swiftly bends over and kisses Ida on the mouth: light, quick, and real. A real kiss which can break the heart of the one who receives it and of anyone who sees it. “You are a hero, Lila,” Ida says.
With a swish of her skirt, Ma turns and walks back to the glider and sits down. She says, “Well, there, I don’t feel inferior now, no matter how smart you are, Ida.”
Ida moistens her lips for the first time. She smiles dimly—her eyes are filmed or curtained.
“You look Jewish like that,” Ma says.
Ida smiles more widely, complicatedly. Her eyes are in focus.
Ma says, “Let’s wait and see if the house shakes.” She means from S.L.’s footsteps on the wooden floors. She finds the noises men make menacing: they twang at her nerves.
The rain falls weightily.
Ma says, “We have another minute or two to be friends in.”
The first orchestral realization that something is up: Playing Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” on a spavined CD player. It was a gray day in early February and the sun came out; and I was thinking, “The Dry Cleaners, The Dry Cleaners, The Dry Cleaners, The Dry Cleaners.”
The first crocus: The Sunflower Market, Thai Vegetables and Seeds, 2809 Broadway, February 14th. Spindly and snow-flecked.
First cold, March 19th – April 2nd. My wife and I are on our way to our accountant’s. On the way I see two drunks fighting in front of the OTB on Broadway at Ninety-first; April is the duelists’ month. Tacitly flirting with my wife, I carry two small packets of Kleenex in my pockets—one for her, because of her allergies: she makes a small nifty nasal piccolo announcement of the annual change in her life. I make the second really bad pun of the season: We sound like Bruce Springsteen and accompanist doing Bach’s “The Cold Bug Variations.”
First episode of spring nosiness not having to do with allergies or nose-blowing: I don’t know why the soul’s primary mechanics should consider spying or snooping a natural attribute of renewed life, but in the office icebox I see a small gold-colored can, shaped like a shoe-polish can, of caviar, and I wonder, jealously, who is so happy and so bent on celebration (or self-indulgence), but when I open it, it is empty, and written on the bottom of the can, in pencil, is the phrase
First philosophical guess: My guess is that spring is a natural way of suggesting adolescence as something one should start to go through again: genetic duty and genetic activity
romance. Hmm.… Nature is as tricky as any politician.
The thought of George Bush leads to The First Depression of the Season.
First emotional detail: More light on the windowsill.
First piece of strange advice to one’s self:
First symptom of intellectual confusion (on waking after dreams of fair women and of various unspeakable acts with them; memory, those astonishing chambers of lost realities, becomes overactive, leaving a broad sensation of gambling.… Roué-lette): The enumeration of the bedroom furnishings—a nightstand, one-night stand, two-night stands, three-night stands.…
In the bathroom, first session practicing smile.
First impulse of active love: A sloppy kiss while my wife is putting on her shoes.
She gazes at me. “Oh, it’s spring,” she says.
Shopping list for first three-day weekend in the country to rent a house for the summer: Contac, Kleenex, Beatles tape, citronella candles (to leave in the rented house if we find it), jump rope (for losing weight), walking shoes, jeans one size too small (to force oneself to diet), a handful of short-lived cut lilac to carry in the car as an
First equinoctial death shudder and racial memory of human sacrifice for the sake of warmth and the return of summer: A roadkill on 32A outside of Saugerties—a no longer hibernating but probably still torpid, thin woodchuck.
Second such event after returning home: Cutting my thumb while using a new, Belgian, serrated-edge slicing knife that slipped on a small Israeli tomato, while I was thinking about Super Tuesday two years ago and whistling Dixie.
Am I unconsciously Angry?
First hysterical delusion: Advertised medicines that come to mind when seeing in a moment of stress spring flowers in the mind—Nuprin-yellow jonquils, tetracycline-colored tulips (red-and-yellow ones). Tylenol-colored clouds (Tylenol is Lonely T spelled backward). Advil-colored dirt. Theragran-M-colored drying blood.
With my hand betoweled and my soul a little mad with pessimism about the current ways we live, and with gaiety, heroism, and the spring wound, I phone my wife at her office. She makes more money than I do.
from my wife’s assistant while I am waiting for my wife to end a meeting. It is possible that even the assistant makes more money than I do. (I am a schoolteacher.) She says that in the stores is a helping-the-blood-clot-and-disinfectant-and-anesthetic spray; and there are clutch bandages. But: “Beware,” she says, “the spray depletes the ozone layer, and the clutch bandage harms circulation.” The finger may turn Nuprin-yellow, crocus-yellow, coward’s yellow.
The conversation with my wife is out of a melodramatic domestic novel, except that at work she is Nietzschean. I refer to her being possessed by the will-to-power.
My wife says, “How deep is the cut?”
“I think I see the bone.”
She says, “Do you see any white?”
“That’s the tendon. Bones aren’t white while you’re still alive. They’re not white until you clean them after you rob them from a grave. You may have cut the tendon. Can you move it?”
“No. Yes. It looks like a bone.”
“It isn’t the bone. But there are nerves in there—”
“Is that true? That’s not just hypochondria?”
“You should be able to see only one nerve, unless it’s a really big cut—do you see it?”
“See the nerve?”
“It’s a thing, it’s visible.”
“What does it look like?”
“A thread. Does it make you sick to look at the wound?”
“No. What makes you think that?”
“Well, take a look and tell me what you see.”
There is a silence and then she calls out, “Hey, hey, hey.”
“I fainted a little. I’m sort of on my knees here. Hold on, let me get up. Whoo, that was stupid. What I saw was gray-white; there’s quite a lot of gray-white. I suppose I saw blood but it looked gray-white and blood isn’t gray-white, it’s bluish, I remember, I—”
“You’re in shock. Is there anyone with you?”
“I was cutting a tomato.”
“Someone is coming over—someone will be here soon. You. But you can’t come home. You’re at work. Should I go get a clotting spray?”
“Go to the emergency room at the hospital. You did this call?”
“I don’t remember,” I say miserably.
“You cut your thumb?”
“Yes. I guess so. Unless this is all a dream,” I say hopefully.
“Did you dial with your left hand?”
“I wrapped my hand in a towel and I squeezed the towel with the other hand. I dialed with my little finger. It’s touch-tone, the phone is.… I think.”