The Madwoman Who Called on My Wedding Day

She was calling, she said,
from the bowels of a library
on a college campus where she
hid each night and slept among the
stacks. She’d been living that way
for years, moving on when she was
discovered to someplace else
where she would blend in
with the scenery and pass
undetected among the young.

I heard her out. She’d reached my name
after running through the directory,
alphabetically. Apparently no one in the
a’s or b’s or any of the c’s before me
had done so. It was a strange tale she
told, how she’d been cheated  of her inheritance—
money her father had left her–
by a trustee, distant and cold,
far off in California.  She said she had no money to
live on, or even fight with, because of him.

I called the fellow, a reasonable sort.
He thanked me for my concern and
the attention I’d given his ward,
but he said she was off her drugs,
the police had been alerted.
They knew she’d come East and
were looking for her but they hadn’t
found her yet.  There were too many
libraries for her to hide in, in this
City of Books, a place such as Borges
imagined where for every

rational line there were rows of senseless
cacophony, a library that was the universe,
the librarians in suicidal despair.

I rolled over in bed to answer the phone and
heard her voice again, more desperate than before.
They were closing in, couldn’t I help? She asked.
What had the trustee said? She wouldn’t say
where she was—perhaps I’d turn her in.

I don’t recall exactly what I told her other than
to say I couldn’t help her that day;
another woman —the one who would
become my wife— was waiting for me in a church.
She was not the sort who’d tolerate a groom
who’d dare to show up late to his wedding and hers,
and so I demurred. You’ll have to try the
next name on the list, I said.

But you’re the only one who’s talked to me yet,
she said, and those words rang in my head
like overtones of plainsong, Gregorian chant
echoing in the chancel up to the apse,
as I repeated my vows, facing the light
streaming through a stained-glass window
thinking of her disordered mind, which kept
her running as I prepared to settle down.

The Mutes

They were a couple who looked much like any other.
He was shaped liked most middle-aged men, an egg
stood up on end; she was thinner, maybe she ate less
than him, trying to keep her figure.  To look at them,
you’d have thought there were normal, which in most
ways they were, the exception being, they were mutes.

She was deaf, but he was not; they both could sign.
They worked at the county shelter for the disabled
and retarded; filling packages, making small objects
that were easy to put together.  Other people at the
shelter had parents, or relatives, but they didn’t.
They’d come from someplace else, nobody knew.

They were trying to live a normal life, or as normal
as they could without the power of speech.
They didn’t want any handouts; they wanted to
earn their keep if they could.  He had learned how
to play the accordion at some point in his life, and
so he had a business card printed up that said

“Liven up your next party or dinner with the sweet
sounds of an accordion!”  He wouldn’t perform on
the street like a common beggar, unless there was
something special going on, like Midnight Madness
on Main Street, or a traveling carnival was in town.
When that happened, he’d play as if part of the event,

discreetly taking a place on the edge of the scene,
smiling at the crowds who passed by.  She’d take
a shoebox around with a home-made paper cover that
said “If you enjoy the music, please help us out and
make a contribution.  We take no charity, but ask
that you give so that we can live.  Thank you.”

One night he had been hired to play at a fish fry out
at the Community Center, the one on a pond south
of  town.  The man in charge of getting him to the
event picked up the couple at their home, and brought
them to his house first, so his children could meet
them.  He thought it would be a good lesson for them.

“Kids,” he said when he got home, “come on down
for a second.”  His son and daughter had taken their
baths and were already in their pajamas.  “This here
is the couple I was telling you about at dinner last night.
They’re deaf and dumb, but they still work and earn
a living, and he practices his accordion every day.”

The children looked at the couple, who smiled down
at them.  “It just goes to show,” their father continued,
“That you shouldn’t let anything hold you back, not a
speech impediment or a handicap or nothing.  And if
you practice your instruments every day, you’ll get
good enough so that people will pay to hear you play.”

The man and his wife nodded at the children and smiled.
“Now say goodnight,” their mother said, and gave instructions
to the baby sitter who had come to watch the kids.
The children said “Goodnight,” and the mute woman bent down
to give them a hug.  The children hung back at their mother’s
legs, but she gave them a nudge, and they hugged the woman.

When the couple had gone, the baby sitter took the children
upstairs for a story and then to tuck them in.  “What did
daddy mean when he said those people were deaf and dumb?”
the boy asked.  “That means they can’t talk and they can’t hear,”
the baby sitter said.  “So it doesn’t mean they’re stupid?” the
girl asked.  “No, ‘dumb’ also means you can’t make a sound.”

“How did they get that way?” the boy asked.  “Some people
are born that way, and some people do things to themselves
that keep them from talking” the baby sitter said.
“Like what?” the girl asked.  “Oh, I don’t know,” the sitter
said.  “Like opening up a soda bottle with your mouth,
or if you were in a car accident and got hit in the mouth.”

The boy and the girl went to bed and talked about what it
would be like to have parents who didn’t talk, keeping their
voices down.  “We’d never get yelled at,” the girl said.
“They’d have to come get us instead of calling us to come
home from the park,” the boy said.  “And they couldn’t
tell us to do our homework,” he added.  “It would be fun.”

Out at the community center, the woman carried the shoebox
around under the Japanese lanterns while her husband played.
She thought about the house she’d been in, which was big
enough to be a boarding house—and those sweet children.
She smiled at the people, who were smoking cigarettes and
having drinks on a patio overlooking a pond; laughing, happy.

She thought back to the tiny apartment on the second floor
of the house they’d go back to later that night; one bedroom,
one bathroom, a kitchenette and a little living room with a
coffee table, a portable TV, a book case and a curio shelf.
An urge welled up inside her, twisting her air pipe like a dish
towel being wrung out, and she gave out a little moan, a cry.

 

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

The Turkey Farmer’s Daughter

He was prosperous enough to buy a place in town so his
daughter didn’t have to live on the turkey farm, where the
smell would repel the sons of the nicer families, according
to her mother.  And so they lived on a shabby genteel block
on a quiet, tree-lined street, a gingerbread house next door
that a doctor and his young wife were fixing up to look better.

But he was still a turkey farmer, she knew that, and his
ways weren’t those of the boys who only got their fingernails
dirty playing football.  He would crawl under their cars and
hook a log chain to the axle and pull the young pups out of
the mud when they got stuck parkin’ and sparkin’ on his land.
That’s what he knew of dirt, and they didn’t. They’d sheepishly
open their wallets and give him a five.

He wouldn’t say anything, just go back to the barn. Somebody
has to feed the birds, he’d say as he walked away. She was smart
as a whip, he’d tell his friends proudly. “Are you sure she’s yours?”
they’d ask with a laugh and he’d admit, he had next to nothing
to do with it. “She’s all her mother, thank God,” he’d say,
and it was true; the women of the house lived apart

from him, out on the farm except for Saturday night
and Sunday, when he’d come back into town.  His wife
would make him wash outside the smell was so bad,
and she would yield to him only grudgingly, an animal
resistance he couldn’t miss, not with all the time he spent
in the barnyard, and he resented it.  He was paying
for the house that looked liked splendor when he entered.

There began to be Saturday nights when he wouldn’t
come home, not even to give his daughter’s dates the
once-over, look them right in the eye, put the fear
of the Lord in them. The look that is an appraisal
and a warning at the same time. He had, he said,
things to do, so they were split into three; mother at home,
daughter riding around, going to dances, having fun,
the father God knows where until they’d hear him on the stairs.

It was the night of the Junior Prom and her mother
asked him “Can’t you please be at the house for pictures
when her beau shows up?  His father’s an optician, they’re
a nice family.” “You don’t want me in them pictures,” he said.
“And I can look at them anytime,” and with that he hung
up the phone. He’d put in a shower out at the farm, and
begun to frequent a new gentlemen’s club
that went in where the old dirt track

stock car races had been held.  “The Grandstand Club,”
the signs on the highway from the south into town said.
“Exotic Dancers! Luxury U Can Afford!”  It was a hilljack’s
dream of big city sin. They had white girls, too, unlike
the sporting houses over by the tracks. He became a regular—
he and the hare-lipped man who’d say it was a shame
they couldn’t gamble there too, then it’d be a heaven on earth.

One time he paid for an all-nighter with an Italian or
Greek girl, he didn’t know which, but she was everything
his wife was not— easy, complaisant, had he known that word,
which his daughter had just come across in a novel by Sir Walter Scott,
reading in bed. He fell asleep with the hooker and after
the place closed down, an electric fire started in the kitchen
that burned the place to the ground. The sheriff didn’t
know what word to say when he called the next day.

“Your husband’s dead,” he said, finally, grim-lipped.
“He was in the fire that burned the . . . uh . . . cathouse
to the ground last night.” The mother didn’t make sense
of the words at first, but the girl did; she’d read enough
novels to know what a man did when he wasn’t satisfied
with his life, or his wife.  “I don’t know what you mean,”
the mother said.  “That place out on the highway,” her
daughter explained, taking her aside:
“It was a whorehouse, daddy went there.”

“Oh my Lord!” was all the mother could say.
“I’m sorry,” the sheriff said.  “There’s nothing left of any of them.
We found his car in the lot.”  Then he tipped his hat and turned
and walked away. The mother never got over the shock,
not of the death but of the deception. “To think that he got
into bed with me after being with one of those scarlet women!”
she would say once in a great while, at the end of a long
meal or sitting on the porch swing as the sun went down.

The girl went on to college where she would put off the boys
who courted her, saying she wasn’t ready, the time wasn’t right,
anything to end the night without incident.  After she graduated
she was inseminated, like a cow she thought as she got the shot,
and gave birth to a son, who she raised by herself.  “I don’t know who your daddy was,” she told him years later when he asked.
“I didn’t want to think I knew him, and found out I had not.”

The Imbecile

He lived with his father, though he was sixty himself.
He worked at what he could do, which was enough;
bucking hay, sweeping, shoveling, stacking.
You wouldn’t let him drive a truck; he couldn’t get a license.
You wouldn’t even trust him on a forklift.
Let the town boys do it; maybe you’d

catch them cutting cat’s asses someday,
but they drove back and forth to work every day,
they at least knew the brake from the accelerator.
George didn’t, and it was too late for him to learn.
If he went off a loading dock, you’d have a mess
on your hands, and what would his old man do?

George’d go places the town boys wouldn’t go, though;
up a mountain of seed that the auger was piling high.
He’d take his shovel with him, knock the top off,
then come running down like a—like the fool he was.
“Got to move that thing else that seed’s gonna come
pourin’ in the front office.”  He was like that,

everything he did had some great justification.
He’d go down in the pit where them boys
wouldn’t when wet wheat would clump up.
He’d shovel, all ass and elbows, ‘til the thing was clear.
The smell down there didn’t bother him.
By the time the boys got their handkerchiefs tied on their faces,
he’d be done–just like they planned it.

They used to tease him, them boys, playin’ him for a fool.
There’s no denying that’s what he was.  He couldn’t count
the bags of grain on a boxcar except by hand—he didn’t
know his times tables, couldn’t multiply.  They’d laugh
at the old-fashioned words he used like “chivaree” and “sparkin’,”
but I notice once he’d introduced them to an expression, they kept it.

At first they’d use it kidding around, but after a while
it would take a place in their wits and on their tongues.
One day I found the college boy with a pad of paper
and a pencil, leaning against a fence while we watched
the winch on the tow truck pull the truck out of the mud
at the bottom of the pasture.  “What are ya writin’?”

I asked him. “Just takin’ down a few of George’s expressions,” he said.
“Like what?” I asked. “See those clouds coming towards the ground?”
he asked.  I looked, and there were clumps of vapor headed down,
as if we had ascended, and not they descended unearthly upon us.

“George said it was ‘lowering’—I believe that usage is correct,
even if he doesn’t know it.  I’m going to check my dictionary
when I get home tonight.” “Even a blind hog finds an acorn
every now and then,” the boss said.  He was angry because
he had to pay the man with the truck, plus us, for a lost morning.

The clouds passed across the field, as if we were on top of a mountain,
instead of standing between windrows three feet high.

The Guidance Counselor

He got  his degree and then a job, counseling
students on  their futures.  He’d see them for
fifteen  minutes at a time, juniors and seniors,
all day long.   On their way out of the little town
he’d come back  to.  He’d gone twenty-five miles
away and no  further.  He only spoke to the
best and the  brightest; the vocational kids

weren’t going anywhere, the middle of the
class would  end up like him.  It was the
college prep  kids whose parents pushed
them to him,  to make sure they were taking
the right  courses, getting involved in the
right  activities.  He made sure they looked
good on paper,  where it counted.

At  home, his own kids were out of control;
they smoked,  they drank, they let their hair grow.
They talked back to him. His wife said
she could do nothing with them. And so as he
guided the good kids down the chute towards
prosperity and respectability,
his own  slipped behind the point he’d worked

so  hard to reach: a home in town, nothing much,
but respectable. Each day he’d stare into the eyes
of the children who’d been raised right; each night
he’d return  home to find his wife smoking a cigarette
over a frying  pan, cooking hamburgers, with no idea
where his boys  were or when they’d be back.  He
knew they  weren’t playing sports, they’d given that

up  long ago.  He suspected they were hanging out
at the  drive-in, drinking Cokes and wasting time, not
making  anything of themselves as he had, coming
from nothing—a  farm north of town—and going off
to college to  get a white-collar job.  No, they had the
work ethic of  their mother; she’d latched on to him
as the girl he  knew at home, the one he could always

depend on being there when he drove back from college.
One day as he finished up at school he gazed long into the
eyes of a boy who was going to college back east; a math
genius, his father a doctor.   Why couldn’t my boys be like
that, he  almost said aloud as he ushered the boy out his wood
and frosted glass  office door.  Then he went home,
as if in a daze, opened up the back door  and found his wife

smoking, as usual.  He opened up the knife drawer, took one
out and said  “C’mon—upstairs.”  She didn’t believe him at
first, thought  he was kidding, but he backed her out of the
kitchen, up to  the second floor where the boys’ bedroom was.
There he kept  her until the kids came home, trooped upstairs
and ran past  him into the room to find her sitting on the floor,
leaning against the  wall.  Their father told them to sit down next

to  her; they were all going to stay there for a good long time
until they’d  changed their attitude.  The boys complained at
first but  after a while realized that their father meant business;
the knife was  real, and the look on his face was grim, determined.
“What do you  want us to do?” one of the boys asked in a sharp tone.
“I want you to  make something of yourselves,” he snapped.
“And you,”he snarled at his wife, “I want you to make something

out  of them while I’m gone all day making something out of other
people’s  kids.”  The mother and the two boys sat nervously, not
moving, like  dolls lined up on the floor, the sun from the west
spilling over  their shoulders.  They stared across the room at the
father, who  finally had to get up and relieve himself in the bathroom
down the  hall.  The elder boy climbed out a window quickly,
shinnied down  a pole, and ran to the police station ten blocks away.

The  police surrounded the house and the man came out with his hands
up over his  head; he’d dropped the knife when they told him to.
They put him  away in the State Home of the Mentally Disturbed,
where he  advised other inmates on career choices available to them.

 

From Town  Folk & Country People

The Boy Who Tamed the Wild Things

The turtle came first; a snapping turtle he brought back from
the cabin  down at the lake; it was big enough to ride upon,
it seemed, though none  of us—besides the boy—would have dared.
The boy had a gift, we understood; he  could speak the language of the
animals, and so soon there was a skunk  that he would walk on a leash.
We were scared until he told us its scent  glands had been removed,
we wouldn’t get sprayed.  Still, we wouldn’t pet  the thing.

The next summer he somehow managed to snare a wolf,
or at least that’s  what he told us it was, we never got
close enough to see. He penned it in  a wire care, and
the animal would howl as we passed its line of  sight,
a hundred feet away, coming up from the lake on
the concrete  steps.  We knew if the chicken wire failed
we’d be eaten, but he fed it  rabbits and birds and dog food.

“It ain’t hungry for the likes of you,” he’d say, scoffing at our fear.
We  were glad to go home at the end of the week, and be back in school
where  the only wolves were in the story books.  When we saw the boy
again he  told us he’d let the wolf go, it was too much trouble.  He had
a new pet,  a raccoon he’d tamed to be friendly.  He’d pick it up
and set it on his  lap, like a cat, until one day the raccoon
reverted to its wild ways and  clawed half the boy’s face off.

The Sporting Club

There had been a whore house at the spot for a century,
since the  cowboys drove cattle up the Chisolm Trail to
town, to be loaded onto  boxcars bound for the Chicago
stockyards.  Scott Joplin probably played  ragtime that
some of them heard, sitting in the parlor, while he  dreamed
of more learned and genteel audiences for his operas.

A hundred years later the only music in the sporting house
was on a  jukebox, whose lights shone red and blue, and
whose records exposed many a  man—the club-footed,
hare-lipped farmers, men who could get a woman no  other way
—to B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Brown.
The young  kids and the high rollers knew those sounds.

There’d be dice in the room off the bar, with cries of “Fade me!”
when  somebody thought he was getting hot.  The girls would
lounge around, not much different than their great-great-great
grandmothers did.  Every now  and then a white kid would come in,
looking a little lost, trying to  appear blasé, as if he’d seen it all
before.  If he was smart he’d keep  his mouth shut.  That way he

wouldn’t pick up a social disease, or get knifed. If one of the black
kids asked for a loan, you knew you’d never see that money  again;
it was the price of admission to this nether world, far removed  from
the shining sinks and order of home.  Sometimes there’d be  posturing,
young bucks and old bulls.  Zack, the owner, knew what was  good
for business.  “Keep it cool, everybody,” he’d say.  “Don’t  nobody

want no trouble.  You need to get outside in the night air and chill  out,
you hear?”  He’d usher one–jawing over his shoulder at the  other—
out the door.  One night it was Zack himself who got into it with  one of the Patton
boys, Lester, the younger of two.  The one with the  quick smile, who’d
been All-Conference in football.  He’d hung around town  to take courses
at the junior college, trying to get himself a scholarship  to a football school.

Lester was out for a little fun and was fooling around with one of the  girls.
Zack told him to cut it out, but Lester knew the girl from way back.   “She
can take it,” Lester said.  “I said cut it out,” Zack said, and  Lester said “I heard ya.”
He figured since he could bench press a man Zack’s  size,
he could handle him.  “Then cut it out or git the hell out of my  place,”
Zack said.  “I’ll go when I’m damn good and ready,” Lester said,  and

Zack had a knife out before the breath was off his lips.  “You feel  froggy,
just leap,” Zack said.  “Ain’t no fence around my ass.”  “You’re  an
old fool,” Lester said, laughing.  “I may be an old fool, but I can  handle a
damn fool like you any day of the week.  Git outta here.”
Lester  said “I’m goin’, don’t worry,” and put his hands up in the air,
as if to  show he was submitting to
the older man’s will, but as he passed, he  grabbed for the knife.  There was a

scuffle, and the knife flashed light against brown skin, and red blood  flowed.
Lester went down, still struggling, while players headed for the door, as if the place
was on fire.  The girls came out in various states  of undress and ran to their homes.
One needed the money so bad, she  propositioned a boy in an ice truck headed across
the tracks to the  poultry processing plant.  Zack knew they’d find him, so he didn’t
run.   He sat down at the bar and ordered blackberry brandy and a beer, his usual.

Zack got himself a lawyer, who tried to argue that Lester started the fight,  that it was
his knife.  The hare-lipped farmer testified; the jury had  trouble understanding him,
but they believed him.  He’d seen the whole  thing, sitting in a chair with a girl on
his lap.  He didn’t want to  testify, but the county prosecutor knew where to find him
too, and knew he  was a regular.  He knew he’d probably been there that night.
After Zack was  convicted, the farmer cried, saying  “Where am I gonna get laid now?”

From Town Folk & Country People

The Jewish Mayor

He was the mayor of a town where most people didn’t know what a Jew was,
   had never seen one that they knew of, and certainly hadn’t met one before.
All they knew was what they read in the Bible, you could have said,
   and so none of the old animosities and prejudices applied.  Had anyone
   ever heard the phrase before, they would have said “He’s one white Jew.”

 

But they hadn’t, way out on the prairie; a visit to the city was a special event
   that took the better part of the day.  So he got along with everybody—he
   knew it was good for business, and kept his opinions to himself.  The
   Chamber of Commerce men thought he was a Republican.  Those who
   knew him socially assumed he was a Democrat.  One year when both

 

   parties needed a candidate, they came and asked him to run for mayor.
He’d built up a little dry goods shop into a department store, one of just two
   in town.  It didn’t have an escalator, like the Rose’s store down the street,
   but it had a second floor where he had a view of shoppers below as he
   kept the books, alongside racks of boys’ clothes, bath towels and notions.

 

His name had never been attached to any scandal or embarrassment.  Oh, his
   daughter Rachel had been sent home from school one time with a note from her
   Social Studies teacher.  She’d written a report about Ruth and Boaz, how
   they’d slept together before they were married—“bundling” it was called—
   and so there was nothing wrong with it, kids should be allowed to do it

 

   as long as they were chaste, like the couple in the Bible.  “I thought you
   would want to know about this,” the teacher wrote to the parents.  “It
   caused quite a stir when Rachel read it in class, and I sent her to the
   principal’s office.”  The father read the report and the note, smiled, and
   allowed himself a little laugh.  “If it’s in the Bible, it must be okay,” he

 

   said.  He turned the note over and wrote “Miss Killion: I agree with you.  We
   have spoken to Rachel, and this will never happen again.”  Sometimes, he told
   his daughter, you have to wear the mask–he had never done anything
   to draw attention to himself.  He was absent from the store on Sabbath, when
   his assistant manager stood in for him, but no one thought anything of it;

    he was entitled to a Friday night and Saturday off, they thought, he works hard.
When the two parties came to him and asked him to run, he thought about it.
His name would get out there, that was free publicity, but he’d have to make tough
   decisions that were sure to make somebody angry at him, no matter which
   side of a question he chose.  It was a little extra money, that would be nice to

 

   have, but not enough to make the aggravation worth the while.  City Hall was
   right down the street from his store, however; it would be easy to pop over there
   when he had to, and zip right back.  He talked to his wife, and she thought it
   would be a wonderful thing, to be the first Jewish mayor of the town, the only
   Jewish mayor for miles around, maybe even in the whole state.  Why, even in

   New York they’d never had a Jewish mayor!  And so he decided to run, as a
   Democrat, but the Republicans wished him well.  He proposed a new sewage
   plant, that’s what the town needed to grow, he said.  And a junior college—
   for the kids who couldn’t afford to take four years off from starting their lives,
   who couldn’t be spared by their parents from family farms and businesses.

 

He won—it wasn’t even close.  Everyone thought he’d do a great job, they said
   “Look what he’s done with that business.”  He was more admired than he’d
   ever suspected.  It was a grand thing—people said hello he didn’t know, people
   congratulated him, told him he was made for bigger things, party leaders in
   the state capital took notice of him.  This, in a town that didn’t have a minyan!

To be so respected, so admired—he wouldn’t toot his own horn, but his wife
   wrote to tell his family and hers, back east.  “We are suddenly social
   butterflies,” she said, “much in demand, although to get into the country club
   I don’t hold my breath.”  And he allowed himself a small measure of smug
   satisfaction.  “Who’d a thunk it,” he said to himself.  “Certainly not me.”

And yet, as he considered it from another angle, it was wasted glory.  “Here,
   in this little one-horse town, what if my Ruth lies down with her Boaz,
   and gets up with child?  Yes, the child will be Jewish, but a little putz,
   a zshlob.  He resolved that night to speak to his wife about birth control.

 From Town Folk & Country People

Her Stars

Doretta taught eighth-grade English, and lived alone, a block
from the school.  She was “Miss” Hay to everyone, and
even though the boys never thought twice about it, the
girls in her classes knew that meant she was an Old Maid,
a figure on a card in a game that you didn’t want to end up
holding in your hand.  And so they knew she was something
they didn’t want to end up being, not if they could help it.

She would walk home each night to her little apartment,
grade papers for awhile, then make dinner for one or
maybe have another teacher over, either a spinster like herself
or a woman whose husband was out of town or who took
pity on her; an evening not unlike that of nearly every other
household in town, with or without a family, until night fell.
As others turned on their TVs, Doretta turned out the lights

and looked out her window at the stars—her stars!—which
had provided the human race with peaceful and sublime
entertainment for eons, since the Greeks and before.  She
couldn’t understand why people would spend good,
hard-earned money on a television when they could look
up at the sky every night—for free!—and trace the images
that had inspired poets, that had transfixed astronomers

and physicists.  The stars—that gave man a sense of how
insignificant he was, and yet how there was a grand design
to the universe.  She counted herself fulfilled if, out of each
year’s eighth-graders, she could awaken a sense of wonder
at the heavens, if she could cause just one idle or errant
young boy to step outside at night and look up at the skies
and lose himself, as she did, in the infinity he beheld there.

When winter arrived she told her students to look for Orion,
the hunter, with his tri-starred belt and his sword and club.
With his two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, behind him,
and Taurus the bull advancing towards him, and Lepus the hare
escaping detection at his feet–that, she always hoped,
would interest the boys, who would sometimes come to class
sleepy-eyed from a night of coon hunting with their fathers.

And yet she was lucky to catch the fancy of even one of them.
The girls would dutifully hand in their reports, with neat drawings
of the constellations, but the boys were a different story.
Some would nod off in the late afternoon, others
would stare out the window, thinking of football or basketball practice—or girls.
Some would hand in nothing, others just a half-hearted stab at
the assignment—incomplete, illegible, incomprehensible.

One day walking home from school she noticed a bulldozer and
a truck on the lot next door to her building, where a small
home sat, fallen into disrepair.  What, she wondered, was in store?
Each day as she passed she saw progress in the form of demolition,
then the lot cleared, then a concrete foundation, then a garish
hamburger restaurant—little more than a metal shack–rising
from the dust, its walls bright white and glass and shiny metal.

Then the lot was paved, and lines painted, and an enormous sign
erected.  Well, she thought, it might be nice to drop in there at
night some time and pick up dinner instead of cooking.
Sometimes she was tired, and just wanted to close her
eyes at the end of the day before she turned them towards the
heavens.  And so she waited for the grand opening, and decided
to treat herself to a hamburger and some French fries and a

milkshake the first night.  She took the food up to her apartment
and ate them at her table and thought it wasn’t bad—
not something she’d do every night, but a nice break when
she didn’t want to cook. She finished and cleaned up
and, as usual, turned off the lights and took
her place at her window to look at the stars and saw—nothing.
The lights from drive-in and the sign had turned the sky above to a
milky white instead of a deep blue, and the stars—her stars—were gone.

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

The Taxidermist

He had been a hunter all of his life,
  and so he learned how to skin animals,
  and then how to stuff them.  He got good
  at it, and word of his skill spread.
Men who had shot bucks and foxes
  sought him out.  He made a few bucks
  that way, enough to put himself through
  school and get his teaching certificate.

 

When he reported for work the first week
  to teach freshman biology, he got off on
  the right foot with the kids; firm, but not
  too stern.  He tried to convince them that
  cutting up worms and frogs was fun, if
  you had the right attitude about it.
But they were mostly city kids, college prep
  types, who’d never hunted in their lives.

 

The second month, October, he told them they
  would be doing a leaf collection project. 
He told them how they should preserve the leaves
  in a cardboard box with wax paper in between
  them, what kind of leaves they had to collect,
  what the trees looked like.  Some of the kids
  looked bored, but for others it was a welcome
  change from the chloroform and formaldehyde.

 

He was at home one Sunday, working in his
  basement on a raccoon, molding it to a log,
  when he began to feel light-headed.  It was
  as if he was in a dream, but awake.  He went
  out to his car and, as if controlled by forces
  he couldn’t see, drove to Kansas City.  There,
  he had a hamburger at a drive-in, then drove
  down into the heart of the city, and parked.

 

He began to walk around, not knowing what
  he was looking for.  As he wandered the
  streets, he seemed to be watching a movie of
  himself, not living his life.  It was as if he
  was the animal he was working on from on
  high, outside of himself.  He didn’t know
  where the he who observed was located,
  or what tools and chemicals he was using,

 

  but he thought he had done a masterful job—so
  lifelike, so realistic. He noticed that people were
  looking at him as if he were in fact a well-stuffed
  animal, and the man who had made him a real artist.
He would smile back at everyone who admired him,
  happy to know he would probably win a prize if
  he was entered in the Hobby Competition at the
  Missouri State Fair—maybe even get a blue ribbon.

 

He wandered until he was so tired he had to lie down on
  the sidewalk and fell asleep.  When he woke up the
  next morning, he emptied his pockets and bought a
  fried egg sandwich and a cup of black coffee at a diner,
  and continued to walk the streets of the city.  This time,
  it was as if everyone else were on display, and he was
  walking the aisles to examine them in glass cases; a few
  people returned his gaze with alarm, but he just passed on.

He emerged from the skin he’d been in to find himself in
  a cell; his fingernails were long, and curled in on themselves.
He could see his hair without looking in a mirror; it hung in
  matted strands in front of his face.  He got food three times
  a day and a place to sleep.  Now he was back on display,
  along with other human animals.  There were very few
  spectators, and they didn’t linger or look long.  They would
  stop in front of a cage and say “That’s him,” and one of the

  other animals would be released to its owner.  In just this fashion
  his father appeared, grey and haggard, in front of his cage one
  morning, and said “Yes, that’s my son.”  They had opened up
  the door and let him out, and his father had taken him away in
  the Oldsmobile that his dad had said was the last car he’d ever buy.
He stayed at home for some time, cleaned up and made to stay
  quiet in a chair while he recovered.  Winter passed and then he
  noticed green buds on the trees, and he understood it was spring.

His doctor came and examined him, and pronounced him fit to
  return to the classroom.  His students had had a succession of
  substitute teachers, each one beginning where the kids told him
  or her the last one had left off.  They had all abandoned their leaf
  collections except for one boy, an honor student, who’d been told
  that he’d better not bring up the subject when the taxidermist came back.
His first day back he looked out at the class as he had looked at the
  strangers on the streets of Kansas City—vacant and unfocused.

“Good morning,” he said.  “I’m back.  Where did we leave off?”
The students seemed to have glass eyes, like the animals he’d stuffed.

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

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