Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sweetness and My Father's Voice

I used to make lemon pie for my father. He said its sweetness was light on the tongue and the tang lasted all the way down his throat. It was his favorite. In a double boiler I'd stir five egg yolks and an overflowing cup of sugar, some butter, a little cornflour and the outer rind grated off two lemons. As it thickened, I'd squeeze the juice out of the fruit itself, pulp and seeds and all, flicking out the larger pieces as I stirred. I made the crust beforehand and baked it some. When the sauce was thick enough I poured it into the crust and let it sit while I made a meringue. He liked lots of meringue so I put several egg whites in a steel bowl and beat them till they were frothy and white, standing up in plurps as I pulled the spoon away. Then I added a spoonful of clear vinegar, some vanilla, and sugar until it was shiny. I heaped it up on the nearly cooled pie into a sort of mountain, spiraling around with a spatula, finishing off with a loop, and baked it just enough to crisp the meringue beige with little golden beads here and there, like sweat.

My father sometimes had a piece later on after supper, if there was any left. He savored it in a way I find myself doing, licking off both sides of the spoon after each bite, running my tongue over the inside of my teeth. When he read to us in the evenings, with me in his lap, the lowest sound of his voice came about at my left shoulder. The up and down rhythm, deep sounds inside his ribs, heart beat and rough wool sweater against my cheek, his breath coffee-scented. He used to change his voice for each of the characters in a book, talking in a way that was almost singing. Leaning in to the sound of his voice, I let myself flow along with it, as if it was coming from me. Out of my eyes perhaps, or my thoughts. I liked the sound even more than the story, and sat very still, letting it go through me like a pulse.

I was a daydreamer. And I procrastinated, often ending up struggling with geometry homework at midnight, trying to be quiet in the room where two younger sisters also slept. The night sounds included the creak of front stairs as my father took them two at a time up to my room to catch me still awake long after lights-out. He delivered the lecture in emphatic whispers, his hand grasping my arm to make sure I heard every word. As if I could avoid that voice. The sharp smell of lemon on his breath mixed with black coffee, faint scent of tobacco in the gabardine shirt he wore. The whispered admonitions ominous, full of a future without him because of his weak heart. He told me there would come a time when I wouldn't have him around to guide me, when I'd have to go on alone. Flooded with sadness I could barely hear his words. Even now the taste of sweetened lemons brings back those midnight lectures in a flash.

My father's punishments were often softened by a treat later on, a walk up the street to Wittig's for a strawberry sundae, just the two of us. The evening warm, elms rustling overhead, neighborhood quiet in those days of not many cars. We'd sit in a booth across from each other, enjoying the ice cream in silence. Then he would talk to me. And I'd fall into his voice, missing most of the words, fidgeting, running my fingers along the edge of my hem, the slip edge too, its slippery softness. He wanted me to grow into his favorite woman, a big bloom of a dark pink rose. I nodded as I listened but in my mind I was miles away. Even at 11 and 12 years old I knew there was more to life than he was telling me. But his voice went in my ears and stayed. I loved and ignored it. I miss it even now, forty years after his death. I'd give anything to hear those deep thrilling tones again. The sinuous in and out rhythm that tugs at heart and belly, the softness in the grip of anger or passion, the sadness. The sweetness that went down deep and made me clear my throat whenever I heard it. Like I do every time I taste lemon meringue pie.
Kitchen Floor

The creaky-bed-slat noise of geese overhead late at night draws me out into the back yard. It's a sound that makes me restless. The shwush of
wind in the linden where I sit at a battered wooden table, the shapes of things distorted by a nearly full moon.

As a child whenever that geese sound woke me at night I'd go downstairs and lie on the kitchen floor. Between counter and table there was a south-facing window, and the moon made a rectangle of light big enough for me to lie in. It was dark red linoleum over soft wood planks, and if I fell asleep there my mother'd rouse me when she came in to make breakfast by singing her morning song. This was an annoying little rhyme she made up that, when repeated enough times drove even the soundest sleeper [my big brother] out of bed.

After waxing, our kitchen floor was like satin. It was my sister's job. She'd start by clearing everything out and piling the chairs in the dining room. Swishing sudsy water over the floor with a mop got the dirt off. Then came rinsing with several buckets of clean water. When it was dry, she got down on hands and knees with a can of liquid wax and a cloth. Sometimes she waxed herself into the southwest corner, from which it was impossible to hop across to any of the three doors, and sat there till the wax dried. I'm sure she did it on purpose.

Today I made a sauce of the dozens of tomatoes that ripened all at once. I'm a messy cook, and the floor and work tops of my kitchen had juice and scraps all over when I was done. Because of these habits, my mother never let me cook in her kitchen. Now, I feel like I'm getting away with something every time I cook. This time of year is heavy with harvest, and even in our small city garden we feel the abundance. This morning I took in three bunches of oregano to dry, and chopped some into the sauce, along with two dozen cloves of garlic, olive oil, cilantro, a grated carrot, shiny red linoleum, soft light in the room, the moon.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Revision with Fruit Flies

Now, as for last night. It began to thunder and storm shortly after we sat down at the table for poetry workshop. The Good Twin had brought us each a large peach that you could smell right through the skin. Damn Moon Poet took out his pocket knife and sliced right into his, wolfed the whole thing, skin and all, licked his fingers, and wiped off his knife. Good Twin cut hers in half, ate some, and left the rest turned cut-side down on a saucer for later. The storm boiled up into a froth suddenly blowing yews against the house as rain charged the windows. DamnMoonPoet had brought 5 poems, and read each out loud in his own voice of thunder. I bit into my peach like an apple. In seconds, there was juice on both hands, on the table, my lap, the chair, and the floor. BigFastPeachEater DamnMoonPoet went in the kitchen for a rag.

The third stanza of one of mine was giving me trouble, the rhythm three beats in excess, the margins hairy with notes, so I tossed it aside for later,and gnawed the rest of the yellow meat off the pit. Then I licked off fingers, hands, and as far up my arms as I could get, till my mouth tasted of salted peach. The wind blew papers and napkins off the table and the lights went out. We lit candles and continued working until Good Twin's date arrived to take her home. By then the rain had stopped, thunder died away, and katydids'd crept back out and filled the night with their din. My friends slipped in pools of rainwater on the freshly-painted porch on their way out. The night was now still as glass.

I left the pages on the table, all crossed out and scribbled on, but with final drafts peering out between the lines, and went to bed hungry. Next morning when I went in to clear away the dishes, there was GoodTwin's peach still in the saucer, slumped down with ripeness, and a bevy of fruit flies hovering.

On the page with the troublesome line the flies had homed in on a spot where peach juice had dripped onto three words in a row in the middle of the awkward stanza, which, when removed, fixed the beat, evened the ragged edge, and finished the poem while I slept.