Why are wine velvet curtains, soft carpets, and mellow lighting reserved for the dead? Why do we whisper around them, these people who are the least likely to hear anything we have to say? Even less likely than when they lived and we tried to communicate—dire, quiet pleadings somehow lost in our throats and the airwaves.
He looks good, strangely so, considering his passing.
Odd to say that about a corpse, yes, but my dad is handsome, even in death. His hair shifted years ago to colorless darkness rivered with silver. I watched the transition happen on the cable news channel to which he gave his life, if not his frequent-flyer miles. I have no idea who received those. Not the gals assembled here.
These women knew him best years and years ago, high-school friends now aging, some of them grandmothers with suedelike skin and clothing ironed into angles. They stand in respectful pumps, feet comfortable in their cocoons of suntan nylon. They skinned their knees with him, failed geometry tests, understood when he became famous and forgot them.
But they’re with him in this small funeral home that’s buried more people than can be found right now in these humble blocks of Highlandtown. Conkling Street’s claim to fame will soon be covered by the earth. Brave, good-looking Gaylen Bishop, intimate with the whole world, come home to Baltimore, back to the neighborhood to end the final journey.
Charm City calling.
They wind their rosaries around knobby hands, fleshy hands, callused hands, and scarred hands, and pray, “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
They’ve gone to the beauty parlor for the occasion.
Some men pray as well. Not as many of them, and not with the same gusto, and I wonder how they knew my father. Dad didn’t seem like the type of man to carry friendships from decade to decade like that school picture your first child gave you during kindergarten. No. Dad wasn’t the type to value childhood friends. Truthfully, he’s fortunate any of them came at all.
That’s what I say. He would have been put off by their plaid pants, clip-on ties, and inexpensive sport coats.
It’s a private viewing today. No network bigwigs I haven’t the foggiest notion about. And I’m the queen of foggy notions.
The media highly publicized his death. I suppose when you’re decapitated in some obscure Iraqi town, you’re going to show up on the news. The sutures around his neck hide beneath the collar and tie. I can’t bring myself to lower the collar and take a look. The resulting lifelong haunting isn’t worth the firsthand knowledge. I have enough hauntings. Like the day my husband, Sean, left.
Dad didn’t beg for his life. He knew that culture as well as his own, both equally unbending, and so he appeared on the television screen, blindfolded and sitting more stiffly than a suicide bomber on a crowded bus. He knew he would die. I’m certain of that.
Gaylen’s emotions suffered at the hand of his brilliance, though. But then again, do we ever really know our fathers?
The floor lamps guarding the casket shine through opaque, tulip-shaped bowls. Their pinkened light illuminates the mellowing faces of these forgiving souls who came anyway, not so much because they wanted one last brush with Gaylen’s fame, but because they never stopped remembering the days when they ate fried codfish cakes at the summer carnival at church and tended the altar at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Oh, Dad. All those letters. All those cards. Sealed up tight.
“Hail, Mary, full of grace—”
I kept promising I’d read them. How many nights I stared at the box under the bedroom chair…stared and sipped…stared and sipped…hoping somehow that your ink would bleed through onto the cardboard of the white storage box, or that whispers of your contained words would seep into my heart. But they never did.
“Blessed is the fruit of thy—”
I hate the smell of gladiolus and spider mums. Tomorrow. I just have to make it through to tomorrow.
“Now, and at the hour of our death.”
A hand grasps my shoulder, and I know before he speaks who it is.
I turn and melt into my uncle’s arms. Mom’s baby brother. All the way back from business in Pakistan.
I can’t cry. I guess I really didn’t know my dad well enough to cry. “Yeah. Unbelievable, huh?”
He smells like journeys and spices and wind. He smells like warmth and tears and sadness. He smells like lonesomeness and smiles. Like goodness and strength. I settle inside his circle. I smell his neck, the crude wooden cross underneath his shirt poking into my cheek.
“You’re too young to be an orphan,” he says in a whiff of wintergreen.
“As I said.”
I close my eyes.
The wake ends. The women and the husbands who brought them file out of Lilly & Zeiler’s. And the carpet stays clean, and the lighting stays pink, and Gaylen Bishop stays quiet and still, and I hope and pray that my mother was right when she said “We really do go to a better place, Georgia” just before she died.
“Believe that if it makes you feel better,” Dad said to me the night after we buried her and he left on assignment for Bangladesh.
“Let’s get a cup of coffee, Georgie.” Uncle Geoffrey tugs my ponytail.
I tug his. “Right.”
Georgia Ella could stare into her mother’s eyes for hours if the days were full enough. They snuggle under the puffy quilt for a few minutes more. The bus will be by soon, but there’s time to gather the shiny new folders and pencils, pack the lunchbox, and begin a whole new way of life.
“You’re a big first grader today,” Polly says. “I’m so proud of you!”
“Let’s snuggle some more.”
So Polly draws her daughter close, enfolding her in sunshine.
My mother held her hand up to her mouth as the smoke and ash poured into the sky. The fascinating image that filled up the screen of our television cast my third birthday into the backseat like the coat you needed in the morning but found unnecessary in the warmth of the afternoon. For some reason, I didn’t mind this. I watched the news coverage from my miniature rocker, and we ate all our meals that day in the living room off TV trays bearing stylistic pictures of cats.
Mount St. Helens lay in peace for generations, but beneath the quiet crust, another world vibrated and bubbled and eventually swam its way up to the surface only to burst forth like a red-spangled lady from the top of a bachelor-party cake. Without the smile.
That’s how I see it, anyway.
Something about volcanoes has fascinated me since that day, which is my earliest memory. Even as a little girl, when my mother and father rigged up one of those curious baking-soda volcanoes in the kitchen, I wished to stand on the edge of one. I wouldn’t be frightened. I wouldn’t care to jump. I’d simply stand there, feet planted, or sit with my feet dangling over the edge, and I’d think about everything going on beneath my feet. About how I’m a quarter breath away from death, how there’re always ten more explosions hidden from the eye, how in one second an eruption can change a person for good.
When they completed Hort’s diagnosis, I stood in a flow of lava, desiring total engulfment. Twenty-six years old and widowhood looming ahead of me? And now here I sit at his bedside in our apartment.
I don’t blame him for refusing treatment any longer. Enough is most definitely enough, the poor man. How beautiful he is, my older man, my lovely man. I’m only twenty-six, wondering if my life is over, wondering if when he dies I’ll ever feel alive again.
He may seem aged compared to me, but fifty-two years old is young to die by anybody’s account.
It’s a good thing he’s asleep. If I voiced these thoughts, he’d probably tell me to hike myself down to ABC and sign on as a writer for General Hospital.
My cell phone rings in my handbag, and I swirl my hand down into the contents, feeling for the plastic. I pull it out, scope the number, and press the button. “Uncle Geoffrey?”
“Hi, Fairly. How’s our man?”
“I’m sorry. I’ve got some terrible news to tell you. Are you sitting down?”
“Yes, right here by Hort’s bed.”
“Your Uncle Gaylen died a couple of days ago.”
“Give me just a second.”
I can handle only a few seconds of grief. I’m already drowning under Hort’s illness. But where to cast some sort of blame for my inadequacies?
“Georgia never called me.”
“No. Georgie’s in bad shape, Fairly. You can imagine.”
Still. I mean, people die all the time, and their families make rounds and rounds of phone calls. “When’s the funeral?”
“Tomorrow. I just got in from Pakistan.”
“Oh, so she called you.”
He chuckles a little. “Fair—”
“Okay, I suppose you’re right. It’s not like I can leave Hort anyway.”
“I know. I’ll come up to New York and see you two after I’m done here in Baltimore with your cousin.”
“What funeral home?”
“Lilly & Zeiler at Foster and Conkling.”
“I know it.”
We ring off. I’ll have to call the florist. I think about waking Hort, but he sleeps so peacefully without any wires and tubes attached. The crisp sheets smell like mountains and glow golden in the small bedlamp that rests on the nightstand. Outside, somewhere above the lights of the city, stars shine down on us. We just can’t see them right now.
Solo stands in the doorway of the bedroom. “I’m about to leave for home, miss. Anything else for tonight?”
“No, Solo, but thanks.”
Solo has worked with Hort for ten years on a publication that will never come to fruition now. Something about world literature and God. He came over as a young Congolese refugee, a widower with two small children, and asked for work one day after Hort came home from school. Right there on the steps of the apartment building. Solo’s going to school now, and he takes care of us in between his research for Hort. Not for long, though. Once he finishes his master of divinity, he’ll be off to much greener pastures than this apartment overlooking the park.
Maybe someday I’ll be as wise as this gleaming man.
“I made up some fresh pili-pili for you. There’s some leftover chicken in the icebox.”
Solo’s food somehow waters any bit of hope you have left.
“How is he?” Solo asks.
“Come on in. He’s sleeping.”
Solo lays a dark hand atop Hort’s head. “Yes. Won’t be long now.”
Solo can tell truth in a way you don’t mind.
“Yes.” I lift my face toward his. “You’ll stay when he goes? Won’t you?”
“I will not leave you to be alone, miss.”
“Must go pick up my kids. I’ll be here as usual tomorrow. Nine o’clock. Hort must see the work going on.”
I cannot hear Solo leave the house, though I try. He moves so quietly and never by accident.
Mary-Margaret cuddled the baby girl, not daring to attach her to her breast. She’d tried to keep from conceiving. They couldn’t afford the six already at home.
She had only herself to blame.
Frank made himself clear the day their previous child, Barbra, screamed her way into the world. “If you get pregnant again, MM, we’ll have no choice but to give the baby up for adoption.”
“But Frank, I can’t help it. We can’t stop making love, you know.”
“You’re the devout one, not me. I’ll use protection anytime you say so.”
“You don’t love the kids?”
“Of course I do.” He sat down at the kitchen table with her as she nursed Barbra, and ran a tender hand over the baby’s head. He’d have a million children with MM if he could afford them. He’d made that clear too. “I’m a mechanic.”
“I’ll get a job.”
“How can you with all these kids?”
“They’re beautiful, Frank. We make beautiful children.”
Frank knew that, of course. With their dark hair and with eyes a color you couldn’t put a finger on, the Salatin children threw the everyday features of the neighborhood kids into sharp relief. Who’d have thought a mechanic and a waitress could create such beauty?
“This has got to be it, MM. We’re done.”
And that was final.
But now she lay in the hospital bed again, and this time the little baby in her arms wouldn’t be coming home.
The briny smell of the harbor, usually humid and thick, rarely reaches me up here on the eighteenth floor of my building. My father gave me the condo after Sean left and Dad moved to New York. From my balcony I cannot focus clearly on the foam cups, shoes, bits of paper, plastic drink bottles, or storm debris that accumulate around the edges of the Baltimore Harbor.
But I stand here at my window almost every morning no matter how late I’ve fallen asleep the night before, and I grasp my mug, holding it against my chest while watching the harbor waters begin to glisten in the city’s awakening. Somehow Baltimore is bold enough and tough enough not only to take everything in stride, but to somehow grasp it all to her sagging bosom. The strains of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, the second movement of course, play inside me…softly at first, then gathering almost enough strength to carry me along in its current.
And then—when the commuter traffic condenses; when the crosswalks resemble swollen, rushing arteries; when I’ve dry heaved my way into a horrible headache, held down the resulting painkiller while lying under a cool rag; when I can finally face the acidity of the coffee—I retreat to my piano. I sit before the keys, praying that this day, something will come. When nothing does, I turn on a little Ella Fitzgerald, and she comforts me. Godmother of soul. My jazz lady.
Like my mother, I became a musician. She played piano frequently at the Ten O’Clock Club, a place she and her best friend Drea owned together. Artists flowed through that place in a steady stream like warmed butterscotch over ice cream. My father was on assignment most of the time, and Mom liked it that way. “A little Gaylen goes a long way,” she always said, and she’d laugh at her own joke, tossing back her dark waves and winking at me.
The cool factor of life growing up in a jazz club exceeded anything else I could imagine. I didn’t miss swim lessons or cookouts on the patio. I was relieved not to have sleepovers or large birthday parties at the bowling alleys: bulky groups of children, strident voices shrieking, feet pounding the carpet, and mayhem spattering the air with discordant drops of sound created a rhythm in which I found no place to sway. Marching-band stuff.
For sitting atop the big Steinway at the club, I grew, pressing my ear to the cool surface, feeling the shiny black lacquer heat up beneath my head as I listened to the inner soul of Mom’s playing. It went down inside of me somehow, and when I started to press the keys myself, it wasn’t long before my progress was noted as something approaching exceptional.
Not my words, there.
“Georgie, come on down from there and sit beside me,” Mom would say after a while. And we’d park on that bench as though sewn together by two invisible threads, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder, while she taught me chords, simple chords at first. “Start with the root.” She touched a note. C. I played the C an octave higher.
“Now, count four keys up.” She touched her index finger on each key, black and white, and ended on an E. “And five keys down.” She landed on a G. “Now play all three together and that, my dear, is a C chord.”
“How about a D?” I asked. I think I was five.
“Same principle, four up and five down. See if you can figure it out.”
After about ten minutes, I was off. Finding simple chords all over the place. She taught me how to find minors and sevens and nines and elevens and wonderful progressions that utilized them all.
Polly Bishop gave me my life in more ways than one.
The musicians at the club picked up where Mom left off, eagerly imparting their secrets after she died. I was young, posed no threat, and perhaps in me their genius might live on in some measure of obscurity incapable of eclipsing their singular glories, their whimsical, powerful styles. I am an amalgam, an assemblage of other people, a winsome Frankenstein capable of groove, of cool, and while those who heard my jazz back in my high-school days said I had a style all my own, I knew down inside I’d never come up with anything truly original even if I lived three lifetimes. Not if I compared myself to my mother.
I adopted Ella Fitzgerald as my replacement mother later that year. She could take a rainy day, roll it around her vocal cords, and sing out sunshine anytime she wanted.
I chose to study classical music in college, the organ my preferred instrument.
Who can compete with the likes of the jazz greats? My uncle Geoffrey suggested it when I played Bach on the piano at the club the day after my high-school graduation. I was seventeen.
He sucked in his breath. “Oh, Georgia. Why didn’t we ever see this coming?”
“Let’s get you started at Peabody right away.”
And my mother was too dead to protest, I guess.
I didn’t get accepted to Peabody, wasn’t good enough at that point. But Uncle Geoffrey knew an old man who gave organ lessons, who played Carnegie Hall in the thirties. We took to each other right away. Robert Darling and I loved each other. We knew it the moment our eyes sparkled into each other’s with that telling familiarity: I have found a soul like me. Robert Darling wore plaid suits with tattersall shirts and striped ties. Robert Darling made goulash. Robert Darling lived alone in a little apartment complex off of Loch Raven Boulevard except for twenty-two tropical fish that tinseled up the tank, their colors shimmering under the fluorescent light overhead.
Robert Darling made the musical switch feel okay.
Robert Darling moved off to Tucson to live with a niece a few years ago.
And now, because somehow I believed that if God gave me musical talent the only place to use it for Him was in church, I’m stuck.
The Grotto, the church where I minister as music director, sent a nice bouquet of flowers here to the condo—lots of crabbed yet somehow beautiful twiggery, some Queen Anne’s lace, and bells of Ireland. I’ve never connected with anyone there at that church, and I doubt I’ll go back. I feel something bleeding inside of me, from that dark, sealed container somewhere deep in my cells. I feel it bleeding into the light spaces, wetting them down, drowning them. I never really liked the music at that church anyway—all those predictable praise-music chord progressions. It’s pretty hard to get excited about D, G, A, B-minor, E-minor chords over and over again. And when I tried to throw in something a little bit offbeat, well, forget it. “Too jazzy, not garage enough, Georgia,” the hip pastor would say. I did like Robbie though. He had a good heart. Just didn’t know music for squat.
Now Grove Church where I ministered before—hardly better. Nothing but Bach and, to mix things up in a crazy way, some Fanny Crosby. At least I used my classical training there. I thought maybe I could maneuver the Grotto in a jazzy direction, but they were too steeped in the pop culture to sip anything truly edgy.
Oh, I don’t want to play another song again.
I’m sorry, Mom. I’m so sorry.
This morning I hate music. I don’t even like Ella very much. I stand up from the piano and trudge into my bedroom. I have to get dressed. And I have to brush my hair. Brushing my teeth will require heroics.
Usually I turn on the radio. Not today.
No music at my dad’s funeral later on this morning. He didn’t like it much after Mom died.
I pass the little mahogany cabinet in the living room, the door swung open, inviting. Maybe just a smidge, just a tiny tip to get me through all this.
And the smell of these people. These TV people. Perfume and coffee and gasoline and rubber. I don’t even know who they are. Producers he worked with? Who? One woman wearing something with a fox collar weeps with large, silent-screen movements. She pushed past me several minutes ago and won’t leave the casket, closed now before we head out to the grave site. I’m relieved the viewings have ended.
When my mother died, her viewing felt like a party. I almost expected her to sit up, call for a piano, and instigate a jam session with all her musician friends who had gathered right here at this same funeral home.
And the bells of the church across the street bonged as we left from her final viewing. But no casket descended those steps into a waiting hearse. Instead, a bride emerged, veil flying in the breeze like a joyful song behind her, and she and her groom floated down through handfuls of Minute Rice into a horse and buggy.
I was twelve.
But today, the only breeze that blows slices me clean down to the soul.
And brides always turn into old women.
Mary-Margaret stares down into the smooth face of her nameless newborn, heart rent to rags by the stripping mouth of fate. She hands the child over to the social worker and wonders what the world will hold for the beautiful child she’ll always call Miranda.
Frank helps her climb into the old Econoline; all the kids yell her name and are happy to see her. She smiles and greets them like always. That night at home Frank says, “See, MM? We still have each other and these kids.”
“Who does Miranda have?”
“You just need time, babe.”
But who can forget her child, no matter how long she climbs out of bed, throws on her robe, makes breakfast, buys thread, reads Golden Books, joins a diet club, plans weddings, organizes forty years’ worth of photos, and adds to a soon-coming grandchild’s layette?
“It’s not just this baby, Frank. We’re not just giving away a child, we’re giving away a life. We’re giving away her relationship with Barbra, and her relationship with Greg, and her relationship with Heather, and her relationships with Abbey and with Erin and with Meg.”
“I can’t do this anymore, MM. We can’t afford it.”
“Then fix it. Call the urologist, and may it be on your head.” She turns her back to him in the bed, and he waits for her to cry. But she doesn’t. And her silence fills him with fear.
On his own, he tries to get the baby back, but it isn’t possible. And he can’t tell MM. Best to keep the break as clean as possible.
Whenever I feel sorry for myself I remember guitarist Charlie Christian. Charlie Christian was born in 1916 and died in 1942. Poor baby. The son of a blind guitarist-singer, with siblings who played as well, Charlie was engaged by Benny Goodman to play as a frequent guest on Benny’s radio show. Charlie gained respect as a nationally renowned jazz soloist and died of tuberculosis before the first year ended.
Wonder what he would have done had he lived? He sure as thunder wouldn’t be tying one on in a darkened apartment in Baltimore, Maryland. I can sure as thunder tell you that.
My little cat, Miles Davis, looks at me with those large green eyes as if to say, “I’m a cat, for cryin’ out loud, and I know better!”
And he’d be right. He always is.
I have good reason, though.
He came to the funeral this morning. Sean did. The man who is, yet isn’t, my husband. And he looked so handsome, his mahogany skin gleaming and supple, his long dreadlocks infused with chestnut and gold. The product of an African American father and an Irish mother, Sean holds the world inside of him. I’ve never seen a more gorgeous human being who’s less aware of his physical blessings.
I hope he’s happy at that monastery place in Richmond. I hope it’s worth it.
I don’t know how he heard about Dad’s death, and I don’t want to, really. Probably UG called him, because Uncle Geoffrey sticks his nose into everybody’s business and somehow does it so gracefully you can’t be angry at him for long.
Sean knew better than to put his arms around me, but he walked me to my car and suggested a time to get together. He’s coming over at seven tonight.
I’m not going to let him in.
I grab some Wild Turkey. It was on sale.
He left me years ago. Seven years ago. And he made his choice. I can’t go back to the old days.
Why can’t I be more like Herbie Hancock? Mom took me to see him in the eighties. While purist Polly Bishop only played acoustic, Herbie obviously never met a keyboard he didn’t like. He began playing the piano at only seven years old and played concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at eleven.
So whenever I feel down and depressed, I try not to think of him.
I’m not going to think of him right now either.
Move over, Miles, I think I want to pass out now. Or at least try.
But until I do, I’ll slip back into my red rubber sandals and dance around while my mother plays something. Let’s think about what she’ll play. I can’t remember her music, so maybe I’ll just make something up inside my head.
Yes, there’s a nice theme.
I’ll just go with that.