Tom King could not remember when Bess Peterson actually arrived, i. e., late spring, early summer? He did know that it was the day they removed a defective air conditioner from the dining room and stranded a nest of baby wrens. Their parents never returned, and every working day Tom looked on, fearful perhaps, perhaps just with morbid curiosity, at the progression of death that was visited on the five bald chicks. It took a while for them to die, and then it took a while longer for the nest to be washed away by the rain, and some time in August when he thought he was totally free of them, he spotted a flat shriveled cadaver on the next ledge down one day leaning far out and knew that beyond that terrible small iniquity there was nothing more of them and that only he knew their secret. Perhaps he was more enamoured of the very small terrors of life than the larger. He was living with the latter day by day. Somehow a nest of dead infant wrens seemed as poignant as all these cripples, all their fears and personal disasters.
Bess, the flapper, was quite a young girl at 85, and he thought at first she wouldn’t be staying for long. At first sight there seemed little wrong with her beyond the amputations of two toes in the right foot and the stubbornness of the remaining flesh to heal. Oh, they might take more off, but pretty soon she’d be out of there in her orthopedic shoes, lifting the walker out in front and placing it stubbornly, impervious to tragedy as a young woman in the peak of health, a young, desirable woman that knew her own worth and was set to exploit it. For so she seemed, Bess Peterson, there where they had set her up in 125, with the vanity from home and the soft chair with an art deco design and the genuine Tiffany ring she had been given by one of her male friends some forty odd years past, the only one she claimed to miss, the only one she ever considered marrying.
“He was a handsome devil,” she remarked past her hand, shielding their conversation from the others on the porch that August afternoon. “Secretary to the president of Leverland Shipping. I don’t know if they’re still in operation, but it was a very big outfit then. Wild about me. A fresh red rose every Saturday morning delivered right to my flat off Third Avenue. And it meant more than a dozen, mind you. It always does. Don’t let any of these present-day hussies fool you. A single rose. There’s no better way to break a young girl’s heart. And not that I was that young either. Over forty at the time and not getting younger, and he was just 35. And I was really thinking it over with some serious intent when they discovered his cancer, and six months later Greg Molker was stone dead. Not before he gave me this ring. There’s a stone missing, but I don’t mind it. It’ll go to the grave with me. Tommy, I cried for seven weeks. Such a lovely young man. In his pancreas, and there wasn’t a damned thing they could do about it. Down there with the maggots at just past 35 and a dead ringer for Clark Gable if you ever seen the pictures. Enough to break your heart.”
Bess had a sister, Mary, who visited every Sunday afternoon about 3, a sister who had married, unlike Bess, and had raised a family and lost a husband, and stayed on loving the children and the grandchildren and, lately, the great-grandchildren. This married sister wasn’t HOMELY, was shorter perhaps and with less of the elegance, for Bess had more than her share going for her over the years and was still something of a princess even with the hoarse deep booming voice that seemed to emanate from a lumberjack and the pacemaker and the ropes of flesh descending from her chin and elbows, gaunt as a praying mantis, deaf as a rock, cupping the better ear toward her sister’s voice, as the two of them sat there over the summer and into autumn hollering at each other and quarreling like two mad witches over a cauldron, over in fact events of sixty, eighty years past, people long gone, times that had faded from living memory, times and events they remembered differently, the principal leverage for their flare-ups, which would always end with Mary leaving tearfully and warning that if it ever happened again she’d never return, that at the very least she’d leave the doughnuts and cookies behind, that Bess was just plain spoiled and not deserving of all the love she’d been given, all because she remained a maid and didn’t know what it was to give in to higher authority, even if that authority was simple financial necessity, mouths to feed, a mortgage payment. And they’d leave on that note, just hollering and weeping and shrieking at each other, and then Mary would be there the very next Sunday with her doughnuts and cookies and the two of them embracing and gentle until their tempers began to ignite and the sequence was repeated.
The Sunday the sister didn’t come, Bess was out on the porch as usual, eyeing her features in a compact mirror, powdering the jowls, rouging the prominent cheekbones, patting a stray strand of white hair back into the neat careful style she had maintained at fierce insistence over the objections of many a hair stylist down through the decades, out on the porch with a host of visitors, including Lois Bumley’s son Eric, who was as gay as a tanager and heatedly desirous of Tommy King, flirting at every opportunity with his moist large eyes, smoking a filter cigarette with the most effeminate of flourishes, crossing the bare legs in the Bermuda shorts and tapping with the free shoe against the edge of a chair, a wall, whatever, tapping and prodding to keep himself in time with his own motions, those of the whore, the old queen, his mother aphasic and oblivious, the two of them fairly silent until the son would erupt into a monologue about his latest trip to the Islands or what occurred Friday afternoon in court where he was head stenographer.
All this was only mildly apparent to Bess, who was presently rouging her cheeks and chuckling inwardly, guilty that she was finding something so objectionable so humorous, waiting for a nurse or aide to show up so she could amend, revise, what she had just seen a minute ago, leaning forward past the open storm door. Waiting till Tommy arrived and took a seat beside her, leaning back and breathing heavy, the lovely smell of man on him, not like that other fag, Eric Bumley, who used the worst sorts of designer scents and laid them on so thick you could smell him all the way over in Building 6, if that wasn’t too much of an exaggeration. She leaned left and spoke guardedly in Tom King’s ear.
“You just lean forward, Tommy, and look left, and you’ll get a load of something just too awful to think about. I don’t know about these other people. Maybe they’re just ignoring it.”
Tom King leaned slowly forward and peered past the aluminum storm door. There, to his left and facing in toward the open door, was Lois Bumley, squat, obese lady that she was, in a floral print dress that had climbed half-way up her thighs. She had the blandest dull, almost confused expression on her face, and her son, the effeminate homo-sexual, was pulling on his cigarette and tapping the point of his black loafer against the edge of her chair, mincing there, wholly oblivious, for under the hem of Lois Bumley’s dress was an expanse of white doughy flesh and the biggest bush Tom King had ever had the luck or misfortune of seeing, for the nurse in charge of that lady hadn’t even put a diaper there to block the view of that massive wedge of hair and private places that seemed to loom out, lurch into vision like a misplaced stop sign. And Tom recoiled in a fit of inward laughter, and Bess Peterson leaned again into his ear and observed:
“I thought I’d seen everything. After all, I’m 85 and proud to admit it. At 85 you seen a lot of things, but that one beats all. For Christ’s sake, she’s bare as a blue jay just out of the nest and winking at you. God almighty, I’m lucky I’m still alive. Isn’t it criminal? I’m just simply out of breath with it. Why, it’s plain disgusting, that’s all. And I thought I’d seen a few things in my time. Well I lived to see the worst, I swear. I lived to see the worst.”
But she hadn’t. That afternoon about 3 she received the news of her sister’s stroke. She took to her bed and stayed there for three weeks. It was October when she came out again with some of the old fire back, but most days it was too cool on the porch, and then she had the long winter ahead. As for the wrens, they came back the next spring and built another nest. They built another nest.
WHERE HAS THE MOTHER FLOWN?
WHERE HAS THE MOTHER FLOWN?
The air conditioner removed,
A swallow’s nest remains,
Two holes in a mat of twigs,
The brood reduced to one cadaver, fetus,
Pouch of dried guts,
Visible only as I lean far out,
Apprised at last of flies
The remainder, a ledge of them
Clot of blue-bottles sucking
We too eat.
I have last fed on Mario’s faddish
Black crew hair, there in 301,
23, slice at his temple
Where they pried a 38 slug,
The useless arm, a fright-toy dangle,
Doll-like immobile stare
Past his daily staple,
Wonder Bread and milk.
Or Frances, 81, pacemaker smile
Tottering toward a vinyl chair
For the Daily News.
She will fold it in squares
To save for a defunct lover
60 years back at the Bridgemount Country Club,
That set—Oh I’m sure they remember me yet!
A solitary poem—
“Through rings of smoke may you always see
Naught but sweet visions of me.”
On the first leaf of a desk calendar
Mailed from her office—
Oh I’m sure he saved it;
You’d think he should;
As long as he could.
Toward pancreatic cancer—
God he was a dancer!
Salvi, Philmoor, Braxton, Seddar, Clives?
Where have their mothers flown,
Their daughters, fathers, sisters, brothers?
Wind sucks a swallow’s nest,
Boiled guts in a cradle, taut as paradox,
Passing the way of wisdom, mercy, laughter, pity, tears.