Advice from Pooh Corner


Deleted from an early draft of The Flame Alphabet.


In bed that night we came as close as we ever had to discussing what we’d heard from Rabbi Burke.  Claire was quiet, directing her energy on getting me to speak first.  I waited her out.  The illness had gifted me with unrivalled patience.  Being patient was just a matter of not caring, and not caring could possibly be connected to something medical.  Symptoms so broad and diffuse encouraged the justification of any behavior.  Anything Claire wanted to say to me she could say without an invitation or outright courtship.  I wasn’t going to beg to hear more of our sorrow.  Or maybe I was, but not so easily.

I leaned over to flip out the light and the darkness felt exquisite on my face.  This was perhaps the most unrivalled moment in all of family life, the switching off of the bedroom lamp.  All obligation ceases.  Hiding, if one so desires, becomes suddenly possible for the first time all day.

The chief virtue of darkness is that people tend to leave you alone.  You can finally go unnoticed.

Beside me Claire huffed, and I rolled over, assumed the pose.

“You’re just going to go to sleep?” she finally said.

“No, of course not,” I said.

I wanted to sound kind, but apparently I did not want it badly enough, so I spelled it out for her, whispering from my side of the bed.

“First I’m going to wait here for you to dump your misery on me, which will no doubt place some kind of blame at my feet, and then I’m going to have trouble falling asleep because I feel a little more like shit than I did before this conversation started.”

She took the upper hand.  “Don’t blame me for how you feel.”

“Ok.  Thanks for the guidance.  Any more advice from Pooh Corner?”

“Yeah, actually,” Claire said.  “Don’t be the asshole who’s already decided on this,” Claire said.

“Ok.  Thanks for the warning.  Consider me hugely undecided.  For all time and forever.”


Watching Mysteries with My Mother


A short excerpt from a new story.


There is a long history of people who, without moving a muscle, have fought for their lives. (more…)

The Fume Cupboard


Deleted from an early draft of The Flame Alphabet.


Before I returned to the car I noticed a fume cupboard at the top of the embankment, one of the old wooden-style medicinal booths.  Up until now I had only heard rumors. (more…)

My Views on the Darkness are Well Known

First published in Harper’s in June 2009.

People are pursuing different strategies during the hardship, and yours would seem among the most severe. How long have you advocated the cave?

Advocate is the wrong word. If I occupy a life raft out on the ocean, and people are drowning, I don’t “advocate” the raft to them. I enjoy the raft and my relative security. If the people in the water choose to survive, they will swim to me and petition the raft, and of course I’ll give fair consideration to their request, weighing the relevant factors. In such a case, advocacy of the raft is hardly necessary, and the same is true for what you call the cave.

So you don’t need to promote what people cannot live without?

Right. But even if I hold a deep conviction about survival, particularly during the hardship, our species is too complex for me to assume that everyone wants or needs to survive. There will be people, to follow this life-raft example, who must stay in the water and perish, for reasons peculiar to them, and it’s not my business to probe their motives. Oceans require people to drown in them. That’s not just a line from a popular song. To me it’s beautiful that our survival strategies are wonderfully diverse and not all of us can succeed.

Harper’s subscribers can read more here.

Hello, Father


Deleted from an early draft of The Flame Alphabet.


I woke up on my back.  It was minutes later, it was hours, it was days, I wasn’t sure.  Being sure seemed so optional.  Knowing my circumstances, knowing any circumstances, felt like the folly practiced by others.  Good luck, all you fuckers.  (more…)

The Worst Impurity


Deleted from an early draft of The Flame Alphabet.


I am relating this account through some kind of inhibitor.   I can’t recall the exact name for it.  I have tried my share of them.  This model is not a true inhibitor, since it doesn’t fully block my comprehension of words.  It’s rotted out and it tastes bitter.   It sits wrong inside me. (more…)

The Esther Repellant


Deleted from an early draft of The Flame Alphabet.


Without consulting Claire I purchased an Esther repellant, an electronic one.  (more…)

Walking Toxics


Deleted from an early draft of The Flame Alphabet.


I was the cleaner, the feeder, the shielder, the spokesperson for the home.  Claire was, if anyone asked, which they had mostly stopped doing, resting.  She’d had a bad night, she’d had a bad morning, she’d had a bad day.  Esther said, in her bitter little way, she’s having a bad life.  (more…)

Medicinal Radio


This is another deleted passage from an early draft of The Flame Alphabet.


Through the radio came great washes of medicinal broadcasts, an attempt to send a healing sound throughout our communities.  If you tuned your device to the high nineties there were stations promoting an advanced species of white noise, shredding through the vocal spectrum so that language sounds were fattened into moans, the potent syllables cloaked over and ballooned.

Claire and I sat some nights in the living room and bathed in this sound.  We were too weak to hug, too ill to really touch.  But the gush of sound from the radio felt soothing.  You could picture it as a physical thickness in the air, a lather that subdued the harsh sounds, blocked that spectrum of attack.  This was wrong, of course.  It did no such thing.  Maybe it was just that Claire and I were together inside it, sheltered by a blizzard of noise.

Sometimes the noise abated and a voice from another station bled through, squeezed out little speeches, which suggested that perhaps they’d found some safe way to share news.  When this happened I rushed to the radio, stopped breathing, just so I could hear something, but Claire, days ahead of me in the illness—ahead, behind, I’m not clear how to describe it—Claire, when she heard this voice pick its way out of the radio, cringed, felt physically repulsed.

Esther turned civil around that time, even gracious.  She did as we asked, refrained from speech.  When she needed something she quietly retrieved it herself, and if we found ourselves in the same room with her she kept her eyes down, observing a respectful, speech-free distance.

At night I would tuck her into bed, and she would endure my attentions, correcting her blankets to her liking after I left.  Of course she needed no such service.  She was fourteen and she had fastidiously sealed off all visible signs of need, spackling them over so that she was fully unapproachable, impossible to help, a stranger.

But I wanted to visit with her, and in the dark, with Esther beneath her covers peeking out at me, I sat on my knees at her bedside until she finally rolled over and pretended to sleep.

Of course these encounters were not cursed by speech.  The mouth’s poison was withheld.  We sought no hand signals or any other kind of communication.  What I wanted was for Esther to know that I was there, even though, in all ways other than the empirical, I wasn’t.

In those final weeks at home, we were proof that many family interactions can be accomplished in total silence.  In fact they probably should be.

It would not have surprised me to learn that while I knelt by Esther’s bed at night she looked at me with perfect, cold clarity, saying to herself: not once did you kiss me good night or even visit here when things were fine.  You think it’s ok to do so now?  Is that what passes for tender?  You think that builds feeling?  I’m supposed to be glad for you when we cannot speak and when whatever I say makes you cringe?

Whether Esther said these things to herself or not doesn’t matter, because I heard them, and I heard them in her voice.

Sometimes I mustered a response: must affection and attention be measured so unfavorably against those moments that lacked it?


Children, Cover Your Eyes!

This story first appeared in Harper’s.

I was fortunate to find a person who would solve my solitude.  She would use her hands on my person until it was soothed.  She would chop at my husk, then spoon out my sorrow and be its keeper. (more…)