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Marsha Staiger and Mary L. Tabor

June 17, 2008

Marsha Staiger
Lemon Lime Line (Linden Series #6)

Acrylic on canvas
Inspiration Piece provided to Mary L. Tabor

Hypersensitive
by Mary L. Tabor

Stock market has crashed. No noise. Economy in dire straits. That is today.

Last year Robert Rauschenberg died on May 12 at the age of eighty-two. I walk over to see his work at the Portrait Gallery near my apartment.

I saved the obit., got caught in the web of memory. My own straits.

My father’s white shirt, the ribbed, sleeveless undershirt beneath that as a small child I carried with me: “her schmata,” my mother called it. My father’s photo taken by my daughter when she was studying photography in high school, developing her own pictures in Bethesda Chevy Chase High School’s darkroom, hangs on the first wall to my left as I enter my bedroom in the loft where I live and write in downtown DC. He is holding his pipe, one finger tamping down the tobacco, the can of Amphora nearby. The photo is black and white and my memory of him, faded to tone. He, a decade gone this June 6, eighty-four and crippled from Parkinson’s disease and a broken hip when he died. He comes to me like his home movies, overexposed, so much light that I can barely see him. Rauschenberg-white: my father’s white dress shirt. “I always thought of the white paintings as being not passive but very—well, hypersensitive,” Rauschenberg said. The schmata shirt beneath the dress shirt.

My 82-year-old father called me in the middle of the night before he died and in the anguish of aging, asked: “What am I here for?”—a despairing cry that expressed the humility of existence and underscored the imperative of continuing to ask the question even as the darkness moves across us. It is the autobiographical tautological question that starts and ends where it begins.

I once wrote in the third person inside a fictional story, a piece of my father. Here it is in first person:

My father took my hand, and said, “There’s an inevitability about the present.”

I understood the way I’d understood when my mother, four years after her stroke, decided not to eat when the new year came, when she took my hand and said “Yitgadal v’yitkadash”—the first two words of the mourner’s Kaddish. It was five years later when my father took my hand on that hot day in June.

We’d been sitting in the house with the old round Toastmaster fan blowing at our feet, humming the way old memories did inside my head. We’d been talking about the kind of housing called “assisted living.” “Assisted living,” he said. “Funny term. Either you’re living or you’re not, right?”

I didn’t answer.

“I’m on my way down,” my father said. “I know that. This is just a stopover.”

“Stopover from what to what?”

“Don’t get philosophical on me, kid.”

My father’s eyes were brown like mine. I saw them full of light from the sun that angled through the window. I saw the green and yellow—the colors of my mother’s hazel eyes—there inside the brown. I remembered my dream after my mother died. In a haze of yellow light, my mother in a flowered housedress. I couldn’t tell the color of her hair—pure white when she died. But it must be dark—around her face in finger-placed waves, how it was when I could still fit beneath her arm, lean against her curve of breast. Then an empty chair. An elegant, suited man on the sidewalk. My mother, on the stoop of their row house. Her arm raised high in dance position. No one stands inside her hold. She leans to unheard sound. She turns round. A fox-trot circle. My father threads eight-millimeter film through the projector, on the wheel. A home movie. Overexposed. My mother. Like the whiteness of a leafing tree against night sky.

“Why are you crying?” my father said. “This won’t be the last time you see me.”

“It’s what I do. I cry, easily, often.”

“So do I,” he said. “It’s inherited.”

Hypersensitive.

I have looked for him in every man I’ve dated during the last three years—the years of separation. I sensed him one Saturday night in the expert on eastern European economics with big ears like my father’s, the man I knew might kiss me when he offered his tamarind soda a second time as we ate a late dinner, if you call what we settled on dinner, at Oyamel after seeing a new Claude Lalouch film, yes, that Claude of A Man and a Woman, a movie this sixty-six year-old, tall lanky man had seen at the Circle Theater, a DC relic, razed now—I saw it with my father, had Netflixed it two weeks before meeting this man.

Was the camera hand-held? as Lelouch circles round the lovers as they meet after they have parted, after she has said she cannot make love because of the memory of her dead husband. He, rebuffed, leaves her. She takes the train. He rethinks on the drive back in the Mustang. Francis Lai’s soundtrack strikes me now as sentimental, but, like a memory, Lai’s rhythm and the humming singers resound, will not be resisted. No rational thought. No editing. No chance to cut the sweet and to the core where I like to be.

When I danced with my husband, I once upon a time hummed. D. has perfect pitch, a curse and a blessing. For me, a curse. For him too I now think: To have heard those off-notes from my throat, the vibration of my vocal chords gone wrong, not tuned. Off pitch. No humming allowed. Not on that chest where I lay my head when we danced. This man says he is working on the question, “Who am I?” while I wait.

T. S. Eliot tells us,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Meanwhile on a Saturday night, the economics expert offers me the tamarind soda on first pour (I refused) and then offers again after he’s drunk half. My father and I shared chocolate soda and coddies at the drugstore soda fountain on Dolfield Avenue, three blocks from Grantley Road where I grew up in Baltimore. We’d walk there together, wait for my mother who was getting her hair done at the salon next door.

Lanky man’s tamarind soda doesn’t measure up to his memory when he was in the Peace Corp in Columbia where the beans were refried more times than his strong stomach could bear and where he went into town for a tin of cookies and the soda, ate the whole tin, sloshed back the soda. I taste the second-hand and secondary soda, the hint of spice and tart rind that recalls my mother’s glazed orange peel that my father and I would have at home after the coddies and mustard on saltines.

This man had held my hand on the first date, not again on this Saturday night, not once in the movie or while we walked. That first date, one glass of wine and nothing much to eat at the Tabard Inn (nothing much to eat this night either. Is he cheap? my daughter asked.) Did I care?

Later I did care. My daughter began referring to him as “Cheapskate” after I took him to dinner at Tosca and it seemed only fair that I should pay. I ordered a bottle of wine. He did not object. He ordered the salad, an appetizer, the pasta, the dessert. The thin man did eat when he was not paying the check.

Thank goodness I am not dating him now in the current economic crisis. Would he dare even to go out?

But on the night at Oyamel, after the movie: His quiet, his calm like the sense of the sea receding with the tide; his angles like my father’s, a Giacometti sculpture in shadow at the edge of sand in fading light. That first date we descended the escalator at Dupont Circle, knowing that we would go down together to separate at the platform. He said, “Ah, so I get to hold your hand for a bit more?” as we descended the long arc down. The slight lift in his voice as if it were a question though we were palm on palm all the way down as he recalled a scene from the movie Risky Business: the departing train through the narrowing perspective of track on track, a camera’s eye in his words, the sound of sex in his voice: Rebecca Mornay and Tom Cruise making love on the train, politely unspoken between us.

He had not touched me since that first palm-on-palm moment. The afternoon he’d called with his “research,” as he called it from the website Rotten Tomatoes, reviews of movies playing at the E Street Theater, the first on his list, “Roman De Gare, Claude Lalouch,” he said. “That Claude,” I said and named that movie we’d both seen in 1967. “Ah, yes,” he said. I didn’t know Lalouch was still around. I cast my net back to the year I turned twenty-one. “Let alone alive,” I said. And so we chose the third-date movie.

After Oyamel, two tapas (hearts of palm salad and two scallops, the soda and a licorice tea), he walks me to my loft where I fob the glass front doors open. “Would you like to walk me up?” “I could do that.” We ride in the elevator, apart, then a short walk to my door. I turn the key. The bolt slides open with the click of certainty. I turn my back to the door. He is 6’2”. I am 5’5”. He bends, a curve of slender grace as he slides his hand behind my head and he kisses me. I kiss him and then again. He holds me against his chest, his arm around my back. “You are a sweet man,” I say into the knit of his cashmere sweater, my childhood cheek against my father’s heart, the white shirt, the soft-ribbed undershirt beneath.

———————————————————————————–

Marsha Staiger
607

Acrylic mixed media on multiple canvases, 14″ x 54″ x 2″
Painted using Mary L. Tabor’s story (below) as inspiration

Losing
by Mary L. Tabor
(Published as follows: “Losing,” Jewish Currents, Vol. 53, No. 11 (587) (December 1999), pp. 12-14. The Woman Who Never Cooked, Mid-List Press, April 2006.)

My father bought his first car in 1938. Six hundred seven dollars cash on the barrel head got him a shiny black Ford and two lessons. He drove home, pulled up along the curb and watched my grandfather Aaron Roseman, who’d been sitting on the marble stoop, cigar in hand, hobble down the path and step up on the running board.

Aaron Roseman never drove a car. He was barely 5-feet tall and had a club foot. That and his life as a tailor, the trade he brought with him from Russia, the land he left because he was a Jew, made him hard-edged, tight with money and with words. He lit cigars in the fireplace with charred wood matches saved in a jar on the mantle. He had a telephone, proof of how far he’d come, and a safe in the wall, fire-proof evidence of what he’d come from.
*
My father used to sit on the hill in Patterson Park after school across from Aaron Roseman’s narrow brick house on Baltimore Street and watch my mother’s hips sway back and forth as she scrubbed the white marble steps. He knew the way she moved before he knew the feel of her. He knew the path she took from Eastern High to home. He could tell her by her walk before her shape formed in his vision. And he began to walk beside her on the cobblestones that angled through old trees heavy with the heated light of summer, like his heart.

Aaron said, “Freda, he’s poor, no profession, a schlepper.”

“Gerson works hard, Papa.”

“With feet,” said Aaron and turned away.

Gerson sold shoes, earned five dollars a week and gave one dollar to his mother. One whole week he ate donuts for lunch so he could buy two tickets to City High School’s play. Freda held the tickets in her palm, turned them over with perfect, slender fingers so unlike his broad thick hand, and said she couldn’t go. He went alone. In his hand inside his pocket he kept the extra ticket that she’d held.

And he took another path across the park.

Two years passed.

He was standing outside Felzer’s shoe store on North Gay Street, taking a break. He crushed his cigarette under his foot, looked from the rubbed ash to Emory Zigler’s size 11 polished black oxford. Emory, a pool hall buddy from his high school, hanging-on-the-corner days, punched him in the arm, “Hey, Gersh, Al Lesser’s got an opening. You know his store next to the Red Wing Movie Theater on Monument Street? He’s puttin’ shoes right out on the floor on a rack, just one shoe for each style. The girls can touch the shoes,” said Emory, “but none of them can get their toes inside.” Emory laughed. “He puts out the four and a halves.” Freda’s size, thought Gerson, remembering her tiny hands and feet, the way her head, if she should ever lean against him, would fit beneath his shoulder. “Lesser’s sellin’ them at $2.49 a pair. Go over there. Move up from this $1.95 schlock you’re pushin’. The shoes are sellin’ themselves.” Emory turned to go, “And I guess you’ve heard about Freda Roseman?”

She’d been in the rumble seat of her brother-in-law’s car when it crashed. He went to see her in the hospital. He put his hand on her forehead, white and clear like the ivory silk of his tallit. And when he held her hand, he felt the shards of glass beneath her skin and thought about the hurt inside him while they’d been apart.

So once again they walked across the park. But now he took her small, bare hand and warmed it with his own.

The day of the wedding Aaron opened the door for Gerson who wore the black suit my mother had bought him. The white summer suit she’d also bought was in the shopping bag he carried along with everything else he owned. Aaron stepped aside to let him in but did not speak.

Three years later, when my grandmother was blind and Aaron’s heart was ailing, he opened his door again for Gerson, suitcases in hand this time and Freda at his side. Aaron said, “I owe you, Gerson, for this mitzvah.” Gerson bowed his head and wondered how they’d find the way to live together.

It was a silent partnership until the day my father bought the Ford. He needed the car for his new job selling insurance door-to-door. He figured the two lessons that came with the car were enough. He stalled at every traffic light but made it home and pulled up to the curb, breathing hard from the work of learning what the lessons had left out.

Aaron leaned on the rolled down window and said to Gerson, “Can you drive the thing?” Gerson thought about the gearshift H, wondered if he could get it into first again and said, “Get in, let’s see.” He drove the old man from Baltimore Street to my Aunt Besse’s house on Ulman Avenue, where my mother kneaded shabbat challahs in Besse’s big wide kitchen. Then all hell broke lose. My mother and my aunt shouted at them both.

“How could you drive the old man?”

“Gerson, you could’ve killed Papa and yourself.”

“Meshugah, meshugah.”

“What were you thinking?”

Aaron said, “Let’s take another turn around the block.” In the rear view mirror, my father saw them in their aprons, a semaphore of arms white with baking flour, waving above their heads to stop the rolling wheels.

Aaron told Gerson to clean out the old carriage shed in the alley behind the house on Baltimore Street. “Put the Ford inside,” he said. On Sundays Gerson carried Freda’s bucket full of soapy water, set it on the ground, then backed the Ford out in the alley. Aaron supervised. “Careful now. A little to the left. Slower, slower. Ger-shon, Ger-shon. You’ll scratch the fender. Cut the wheel tighter, harder. Ach, at last you’ve got it,” he’d yell. But Gerson never got the hang of backing up. So Aaron was essential for the ritual of the washing.

One day, my father says, Aaron, who never carried a dish from the table to the sink, who never made himself a cup of tea, came outside with rag in-hand. Their hands bumped inside the soapy bucket. When they were done that day, they stood together in the alley and looked at their reflections in the sheen. My father, tall and thin. Aaron, small and bent with age. Aaron took a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “Here’s the combination to my safe,” he said. “You be the one to open it when I am gone.”
*

My father drove that car, and many others all paid for in full in cash, until he was eighty-three years old. He drove to collect premiums house by house, to sell policies for new couples, for new babies, for insurance against disaster. He drove my mother in early labor with my sister to Dr. Gutmacher’s office. He put her in the car but in his haste and anxiety smashed her finger in the door. Dr. Gutmacher tended to the finger, timed the contractions and said, “Gerson, I’ll drive her to the hospital. You follow.” That was the only time he didn’t drive one of us when things mattered. Whenever I saw a big dog outside, my father saved me with a ride to grade school. He drove me back to College Park after weekends at home my whole freshman year at the university when I was just sixteen, lonely and scared to live away. He drove my sister home from the hospital when she lost her leg to diabetes. He drove my mother to the store for groceries and waited in the car while she picked out sweet-smelling melons. After her stroke, he dragged her wheelchair in and out of his big gray Chevy. And he drove to the cemetery every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to visit my mother’s grave and then later my sister’s grave as well.

He never ran a red light. He got one speeding ticket when he and my mother were driving through a small town in Vermont on vacation. A policeman drove out from behind a billboard. “Didn’t see that 15-mile speed limit sign, now did ya?” he said.

But last year my father missed a turn he always makes on his way to the Pikesville Senior Center. He made an illegal U-turn to get back to where he knew the way. The young policeman—and think how young this one looked to him that day—asked him to step outside the car and then laid down a wide strip of tape.

“Do you think I’m drunk?” my father asked.

“No sir, I don’t. But I wonder why your hand shook so when you handed me your license.”

“Getting stopped by the police can shake the nerves,” my father said.

“Yes, sir, it can. Now, if you’ll just step out.”

My father’s back is curved, his legs are stiff, his arms have thinned. He uses his hands to lift his legs above the floorboard of the car when he gets out.

He walked the policeman’s line with a shuffle in his gait. The years dragged on his foot.

While the policeman wrote the ticket that took away his license, my father stood in summer heavy sun and watched his shadow shimmer on the tar. He thought of his tallit and how he used to sit in synagogue and watch the fringes swing in sunlight, and the threads of memory flickered in his head.

He thought of the day so long ago when Aaron stepped up on the running board and then of the day they put the old man in the ground—the day he opened up the safe. Aaron, crippled all his life, who left, instead of cash, a pile of IOUs signed by relatives and friends who’d seen bad times, old pieces of paper from worn out lives saved like burnt matchsticks in a jar. Aaron, who made sure my father was the one to stand before the open safe, to hold the papers in his hands. Aaron, who knew that he would throw them all away.

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