Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Janet Frame’s 'An Angel at My Table'

Yes — Janet Frame — You CAN Write!

The Salon meets again! On hand were, Left to Right: 
Valerie Ihsan, Ross West, Anne Dean and Sondra 
Kelly-Green, who hasn’t returned a library book since 1965. 
New Zealand’s Janet Frame (1924-2004) is an honest writer of deliciously rich imagery. You might know her from director Jane Campion’s 1990 film ‘An Angel at my Table’, which Salon members Ross West and Valerie Ihsan viewed while reading this month’s selection. Both were blown away by its intensity. 
The Salon’s focus book this month, also entitled, An Angel at My Table, a stand-alone readis actually the second part of her full work, Janet Frame, An Autobiography. The whole book is a big bite of literary pie, but if you find yourself loving Janet’s raw honesty, tragic history and ultimate triumph it might be just the winter read for you. 
Two synchronistic surprises this month. One is that Salon member Anne Dean lived in Dunedin, New Zealand for a few years, which I didn’t know when I suggested the book for group review. Although Anne does have a tendency to hopscotch about the globe, still, it’s an unusual corner of the world for her to have popped up in. But even more amazing, she was a member of the choir that sang at Janet Frame’s funeral.
Synchronicity struck again when Valerie and I discovered we both loved the exact same passage from the book, and it’s a great example of how Janet Frame can capture and convey a scene with surgical precision. 
 (The set-up): Janet is embarking on an ocean liner from New Zealand to London on a literary grant. She’s also terrified, with near-crippling shyness. As she leaves her family behind on the dock, a brass band plays and streamers fly (just like in old movies).
(The passage):  “I stayed on deck to catch one more glimpse of Aunt Polly, looking frailly neat in her blue coat, Uncle Vere, tall beside her, and Dad, huddled against the wind, in the half-shelter of the wharf shed, then with a final wave, and clutching the five-pound note Aunt Polly had pressed into my hand with a whispered ‘Something from Uncle Vere and myself’, I went towards the stairs, just as the band was playing ‘Now is the Hour’, and the music reached down like a long spoon inside me and stirred and stirred.”
 This passage is all one sentence, but one so well-written, with such simple and well, stirring words, you’re not even aware of its length. Now that’s writing. This might be what comes of starting out as a poet—as Janet did—this care for each word, this ear for the rhythm of its flow on the page. 
 Her Story: Janet is raised in a large, impoverished family in Dunedin on New Zealand’s southernmost island. Two of her sisters, as young adults, drown within years of each other and her brother Bruddie begins to have seizures and is diagnosed with epilepsy, which their father insists, ‘He could get over if he wanted to’. It’s a tough, hardscrabble life that Janet quietly mines for inner meaning and beauty, inspired by her hard-working, peace-keeping mother who sometimes manages to get a poem published in the local paper when ‘not caring for the kiddies’. 
Janet leaves home for training to be a teacher, eager, most of all, to ‘be no trouble’, as Salon member Ross West pointed out. She’s so painfully shy, our modern minds reach for what her challenges might be called today. Social phobia? Agoraphobia? Panic disorder? Certainly not schizophrenia, which she is ultimately diagnosed with, mostly due to her encounter with a young, handsome psychologist, John Forrest, a Freud apostle just itching to put his learning to work. Janet falls for him in a transference-on-steroids sort of way. She desperately presents with symptom after symptom to hold his attention. This includes an airy allusion to a recent suicide attempt. (She’d dramatically downed a bottle of aspirin.) As a result she finds herself committed for most of her twenties to Seacliff, a nightmarish mental hospital she’s known since childhood as the place where the loonies go. No one gives her any individualized attention. No one discusses decisions about her treatment with her. And sadly, her simple, well-meaning family assumes that the authorities know best. Once she’s been diagnosed, John Forrest seals her fate during one of their ‘chats’. 

 “ . . . He next made the remark which was to direct my behavior and reason for many years. ‘When I think of you,’ he said, ‘I think of Van Gogh or Hugo Wolf . . . ‘” 

 Janet did her research. They were both named as schizophrenic, (along with Schumann, whose compositions Forrest not only admired, he’d played for her.) 

“ . . . with all with their artistic ability” Janet writes, ”apparently the pearl of their schizophrenia. Great artists, visionaries . . . My place was set, then, at the terrible feast. I had no illusions about ‘greatness’ but at least I could endow my work and — when necessary — my life with the mark of my schizophrenia.”  

It’s mesmerizing reading—this measured portrayal of her shyness, submission and agony mixed with a certain pride in her diagnosis as an artistic badge of ‘differentness’. Janet docilely takes what the nation’s appalling mental health system dishes out until, eight years into her treatment, she’s actually scheduled for a lobotomy, which, she later says, in the absence of drugs, was becoming a ‘convenience’ treatment for Seacliff’s overworked, under-motivated, often downright vindictive staff. 

Janet Frame

This is when Janet’s life takes a soap opera turn right up there with amnesia and evil twins. She’s shared her writing with—yes—John Forrest—who, once her Judas, is now her redeemer. Through his efforts, her art, quite literally, saves her when word reaches the hospital just days before the brain surgery is scheduled that her short story collection has won the national writing award for best prose. As a result, she’s freed by the amazed administration of Seacliff into a society increasingly fascinated by both her talent and her ‘madness’. What follows is a life in which she, blessedly, falls into a network of artists inspiring, supporting and in Janet’s case, saving each other. 
As her writing career soars, Janet questions whether or not she truly has talent, or whether her awards and notoriety are because she’d been labeled insane, or because her native New Zealand is an underrepresented country just finding its voice on the world literature scene. She also wonders whether other writers have supported her because of her talent or because of the mental problems she still grapples with.
When Ross termed this ‘imposter’s complex’ we knew he’d hit the nail on the head. We also agreed this isn’t a rare thing among artists who’ve been helped by other writers along the way. 
The irony is that Janet’s “Can I write?” questioning is so devastatingly, beautifully written. 
Her life is an amazing arc to follow. You cheer for her and feel for her and know that she couldn’t be who she became if she hadn’t gone through what she did and lived to tell about it. Horrible things happened to Janet. But she never stopped hoping. And she never lost her sense of awe at how, when she needed them most, people appeared. People helped.
This is a harrowing yet hopeful book. It’s also a book that makes you wonder what you would do under the same circumstances. I believe the very best biographies, and autobiographies, do that. 
Next, the Salon tackles the unlikeliest of craft books that nearly every author I know agrees, hits it right out of the ballpark. Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’

Friday, June 8, 2018

Knowing Bobby Firsthand.

"1968. With such big things happening, it was a scary time to be little."

Memories are funny things. Some turn out to be so far from the truth, you wonder how your mind's found all that spare time to mess with you. Others are pretty close to spot-on, which is what happened to me a couple of weeks ago.

Back in 1968 my best friend Gina Kuzmanich and I skated with Bobby Kennedy at Lloyd Center in Portland, Oregon, the world's largest shopping mall—an open-air oval built around a skating arena. A little over a week later he was shot and killed. We were devastated. The memory still haunts me.

I wrote an essay about this years ago, Knowing Bobby Firsthand, which, since yesterday was the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I decided to post here on Writing Matters. (I got it to the Oregonian too late to run.) It was all set to be sent off early last Friday—(thanks, Jim and Doug!)—until my computer, sensing my urgency, started spinning the 'beach ball of doom' and froze, refusing to even shut down. I'd write more about that but it's listening and it took an awful lot of verbal abuse last week. I don't want to push my luck.

I wondered. Did it happen the way Gina and I remembered? This was, of course, way before people carried phones with cameras. So, after years of scouring the internet for a photo of that surprise visit, a couple of weeks ago I discovered a three-minute video of it on YouTube. The emotions that hit were instant, intense and bittersweet. There we were. Just like I'd remembered. Bobby’s in a suit with black skates. Gina's in a gold sweater. I'm in pink. Bobby's wife Ethel and John Glenn, the astronaut, are skating too. (That, I'd forgotten.) But when I saw it, it all came rushing back—vague parts all fitting together like long-lost puzzle pieces. 

I couldn't believe this footage existed—not only that it existed but that I'd found it!
As ‘advanced tots’ (I know, it sounded dumb to us too) our figure skating coach, Helen, sent us out to link hands and circle the ice. To—as we saw it—‘show him our turf’. Bobby, who had just announced he was running for president, was kind and gentle and a great skater. I remember how young he seemed. And in that magic way kids have of recognizing a kindred spirit, we loved him instantly.
Ten days later, after a visit to the Oregon coast, Bobby traveled south, to Los Angeles, and was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel. He’d just delivered his victory speech, having won the California primary.

I still remember the sickening jolt when we heard. It was more than we could comprehend. We'd just skated with Bobby days before. How could he be gone? How could an evil man just step out of the shadows and alter history forever?

1968, with so many big things happening, was a scary time to be little. Gina and I were old enough to sense the uncertainty. The fear of what could be just around the corner.

It was about that time I became hyperaware of music. I just had to know (but I was afraid to know) what (besides flowers) got thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge in 'Ode to Billie Joe'. (I still don't know.) 

 But the most vivid musical memory I have from that ‘After Bobby’ time was how I—as kids do—erroneously attached a specific meaning to another mysterious song that played all summer —‘For What it’s Worth’. It had a tremulous, two-note intro that to me, said danger. then . .


"There's something happening here
But what it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware . . .

I think it's time we stop
Children, what's the sound?
Everybody look—what's going down?"

In my seven-year-old mind, Buffalo Springfield was singing to me—singing about Bobby. About the shots fired in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. And then there was:

"Paranoia strikes deep
Into your heart it will creep.
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away."

"What man? The man with the gun? He was the only ‘man’ in the song. I was petrified. And this fear didn’t fade away. It went on all summer and well into the fall. At sleepovers Gina and I whispered about Bobby. About what the news said. (That after the shooting, a young girl covered one of the pools of blood with a campaign hat.) (That after Bobby was shot, he looked up and asked if everyone was all right.) That we had absolutely no doubt about. 

But mostly we wondered about what the news didn’t say—the awful mystery of why?  Bobby Kennedy's and Martin Luther King’s assassinations. The Democratic convention in Chicago. The Vietnam War ‘body count’ on the news every night. The draft, which people were starting to call ‘Body Bingo’. The protests. The riots. For us, 1968 snapped and sizzled with an evil, underlying electrical current—of downed lines of communication between the ‘generation gap’ and questions we were afraid to ask because we sensed our parents didn’t have the answers. Worst of all, we could tell, our parents were scared too. And as a kid, there's nothing scarier than that. 

But mostly, Gina and I remembered a moment frozen in time. When Bobby Kennedy—the man who would be the next president of the United States—was ours. On our turf—on the ice that was our second home—if only for a fleeting, flashing instant. One that miraculously found us fifty years later.  

Gina Kuzmanich and Sondra Kelly, Lloyd Center Ice Arena, July, 1968 

For me, an always-disturbing photo of us right before our summer ice pageant, 
just weeks after the assassination.  
And although we don’t see the shadowy stranger behind us, we look haunted.

Here's  the original essay, written in a much younger, 7-year-old-ish voice. I kept it pretty much true to my memories of how it was.

Knowing Bobby Firsthand

By Sondra Kelly-Green

“Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.”    

Senator Robert Francis Kennedy

On May 25th, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy, campaigning throughout Oregon, made a surprise visit to Lloyd Center in Portland, Oregon. It was the nation’s largest shopping mall—a giant, open-air oval built around an ice arena.
Lloyd Center was also a second home to me and my best friend Gina. We’d started skating when we were four. By the time we were seven we were proud to be almost-intermediate-level figure skaters. We conquered the ice just about every day, defying gravity with spins and jumps, fearless as only kids can be.
For me, the ice was a wicked escape from my overprotective mother—(I had allergies)—giggling as I’d sweep past her, skating backwards faster than I could ever run. Mary, Gina’s mother, full of fun and laughter, was the complete opposite, and I felt a tickle of guilt whenever I wished she were my mom, which I always secretly did.
Mary came to the U.S. from Yugoslavia right before Gina was born. She tended to lose some of her English when she got excited. That day Gina and I had every reason to be excited. Summer vacation was only a week away, which meant lots of sleep-overs, the Rose Festival Parade right at the end of Gina’s street and in July, the rose-themed ice pageant we’d been practicing for all spring.
That day we laced our skates, straightened our tights, and just as I was starting to say how loud it was getting outside, Mary burst into the dressing room, waving her arms and yelling, “Vote Bobby Kennedy President!” “Vote President Kennedy!”
We couldn’t vote but we could investigate. So, skates secured, off we marched, through the lounge and up to the ice. It had just been Zambonied to a see-through sheen. This was always the best time to skate, when our blades would be the first to make their marks. But all the action was at the entrance turnstile to our right. We were stunned. It was like we’d just turned on the nightly news, because standing there—with a Cheshire grin that splayed tanned sunbursts beside each eye—stood Robert Kennedy.
Suddenly shy but fascinated, we edged closer. We knew Bobby Kennedy was the brother of President Kennedy, who’d been assassinated right after we were born. That he was against the Vietnam War. That he fought for civil rights and poor people. We also knew that Bobby Kennedy might be the next president of the United States. And Bobby Kennedy was standing right there.
The rowdy group around him wore patriotic straw hats, striped jackets and shiny blue ‘Kennedy in ’68’ sashes. Gina and I stretched up onto our toe picks to peer over the crowd. We watched Bobby go down to the lounge and expertly lace up his skates. His brown hair had cowlicks and a side part. It kept falling onto his forehead a little and he’d turn his head to flip it back or comb it back between his fingers. (My brother did the same. It was a ‘60s thing.) Bobby Kennedy was tan. Really tan. And so was his wife, Ethel. Her smile was as white and wide as Bobby’s, and she and Mary had already struck up a lively conversation. I wondered if she spoke
Then our coach Helen appeared and filled us in. As she did, we looked up. Word, it seemed, had spread. Beneath the sudden, four-deep, packed crowd—by now cheering all around the second floor railings—we were to organize the other ‘advanced tots’ to link hands and escort Bobby on a circuit or two around the ice. Gina and I gave each other wary looks. We were used to people watching us skate. Still, this was way different.
But Bobby, as it turned out, was totally cool. His voice was higher and more kid-like than I expected and he had an accent like my Aunt Alma in Boston. This, along with his almost teen-aged looks, made us relax right off. In fact, I felt sort of protective, like we were leading the way—showing him our secret, parent-free turf.
People were waving their arms and flashing peace signs, cheering, “RFK!—RFK!” and “Sock it to ‘Em, Bobby!” (“Sock it to Me!” was what everyone said on Laugh-In.)
Bobby flashed a peace sign back. “Let’s go!” he yelled, in that really young voice I liked. He seemed as excited as we were, like hitting the ice was something he’d just thought of. Gina and I joined hands with Bobby and our friends. Then we were off. Within seconds, Gina and I discovered, we were hand-in-hand with someone who could really skate. His blades brushed with ours just like a pairs skater. He did perfect cross-overs. And he knew the biggest secret of all. He never once looked down. 

The second time around, I saw where all our blades had made the first traces on the ice. Bobby’s had gone deeper and where the sun caught the edges it made barely-there, whiskery rainbows. Ethel and John Glenn, the astronaut, skated free-style circuits with us all after that, and then once again, we all joined hands to circle the rink. It was hands-down the most exciting things that had ever happened to us. 
And so on that unforgettable day in 1968, just one week before summer vacation, my best friend and I and the other ‘advanced tots’ did several thrilled rotations around the ice’s Lloyd Center logo, with Bobby Kennedy towering in the middle of the line. He still had that warm, Cheshire smile that told his cheering campaign supporters and the stunned, delighted shoppers that not only could he skate, not only did he love Portland, but that there was no stopping him.
Except there was. Just a few days later he went down to California, gave his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel and in closing, flashed his trademark peace sign. Then he and Ethel were unexpectedly ushered through the kitchen where he was shot and killed by someone with the scary-sounding, double-for-no-reason name of Sirhan Sirhan.
I tried hard to understand. How quickly and easily an unforgettable person can appear and then disappear. Someone everyone loved. Someone I loved. I realized then, even though I only knew his brother and what happened to him in Dallas secondhand, even though; now I knew—firsthand—how finally and forever a line can be broken. And no matter how tightly you hold onto someone’s hand, sometimes they just have to let go.

“Bobby’s Last Speech”
 - Senator Robert and Ethel Kennedy, just minutes before his assassination, 
Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California, June 5, 1968. 

Senator Robert Francis Kennedy
November 20th, 1925 - June 5, 1968

Our answer is the world's hope; it is to rely on youth . . . This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.”

“It is not to enough to understand, or to see clearly. The future will be shaped in the arena of human activity, by those willing to commit their minds and their bodies to the task.”

“The first element of (this) individual liberty is the freedom of speech: the right to express and communicate ideas . . . to recall governments to their duties and obligations; above all, the right to affirm one's membership and allegiance to the body politic — to society — to (those) with whom we share our land, our heritage, and our children's future.”

Day of Affirmation Address
University of Cape Town
Cape Town, South Africa

As for free speech, (see above quote), it’s ironic to note that in November of 1968, just four months after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, several anti- war and draft protestors respectfully and peacefully distributed pamphlets at Lloyd Center. (The military draft of young men had just begun.) They were forced to desist by Lloyd Center LLC. Ultimately the Supreme Court ruled that Lloyd Center served a ‘town square’ function and anyone could petition there, since it was open to the public at all times. Immediately following, Lloyd Center LLC posted ‘private property’ signs throughout the mall.)

Christmas, 1968. Sondra Kelly, Mary Kuzmanich and Gina Kuzmanich.

One Last Thing: Gina's mom, Mary Kuzmanich, didn't live to see this video or this post. She died just days before I found it. She was my second mom—a fine, strong and beautiful soul. She was the first thing I thought of when I found the footage. I know she would have loved it. Mary was always everything a mother should be. Laughter, adventures, treats, hugs and always—lots and lots of love. They say as you advance in age—(or hell—just get old)—that you mostly remember your younger years and especially your childhood. I'm glad this grand, loving, compassionate and courageous lady will be a part of mine.
And Gina too, it goes without saying. We've still got a few adventures up our sleeves.
I love you, Mary. Thanks for making my childhood something to remember and to celebrate with joy and laughter. You taught us to pass love on. It's a good lesson. I promise, I won't forget.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Now Showing

By Sondra Kelly-Green

(A Spooky One for Halloween)

Written some time ago but recently abridged, my short story Now Showing was originally published by Margins; Exploring Modern Magical Realism. Its narrator shares a singular glimmer into the past, the future and maybe most unsettling of all—the present.  

. . . It’s not just an urban legend. There really was a window like that. I should know. I mean, I’m just some fuckin’ guy. But I was a viewer.
First of all, the window wasn’t in Olympia like people keep saying. It was in this office building in Seattle, down by Pike Place Market. It’d been installed in this funky narrow hallway people hardly ever used. Most people didn’t even know it was there. I didn’t for the longest time.
But anyway, the first viewer I know of was this salesman, Richard Harley. Everyone, and I mean everyone in his company hated him. He’d lie, cheat, steal, step on anyone to get ahead, you know?
So one day about five years ago he’s late for a meeting, right? He’s hauling ass to get to the elevators but he looks down at his watch and sees his fly is open. So he slips into the hallway for a quick zip and there’s the window. Plain, industrial looking. Steel frame. Nothing special, you know? Then things start to get weird because instead of the parking lot this Harley guy expects to see outside the window there’s this massive oak tree. Then when he squints and comes closer he realizes it’s the exact same tree he played under as a kid down in Oregon. He can see the roof of his parents’ house in the background and his old dog Boz pissing on some rock in the foreground. Then he sees himself as a kid of around twelve or so—all serious-like—staring up at the branches and stepping over these huge gnarly roots so he can move from one side to the other.
Back in the hallway—back in real time, I guess—big Harley moves a step away, almost to the wall behind him. He thinks he knows what’s coming and he doesn't like it. He doesn’t like it at all.
 Then the window pans in for a close-up and his little brother Jordie comes into view. Jordie was a perennial pain in the ass as far as Harley was concerned. You know, following him everywhere, messing around with his bike, pawing through his room and breaking his Star Wars shit. Typical kid brother stuff.
Really, the only time Harley paid any attention to him at all was when he needed a subject for his “experiments” as he called them. And here I’ve gotta say—this Harley kid was more than a little whack. But little bro Jordie was always game for these experiments so long as Harley and he were together, right?
Anyway, by this time old Harley’s trying to back even further away from the glass, trying to make the whole scene go away. Now he’s sure of what’s coming. Part of him wants to run. But it’s like passing a bad accident on the highway. You can’t not look, right? He opens one eye. He sees a close-up of young Harley standing there with a rope and a crazy smile that shows his braces. Then he puts on a Darth Vader helmet. Twisted. But Jordie’s just standing there too. Idolizing Harley. The mask doesn’t faze him one bit.
Then big Harley totally loses it and starts screaming, “No!” to his younger self. He drops his briefcase and pounds on the glass and yells it even louder. But little Harley, still smiling, carefully wraps the noose around his little brother’s neck. The only sound is Harley breathing all raspy through the Darth Vader helmet. Harsh in and out breaths like they’re coming from a long way away—all scratchy-record-like—you know?  But the weirdest is how calmly Jordie’s waiting for what comes next, staring at Harley’s black shiny helmet under the oak tree. Trusting him.
By now big Harley’s making ‘stop’ motions with his palms like some traffic cop on meth. His eyes are closed tight and he keeps them closed until he hears Jordie’s neck snap like a tree branch. He realizes he’s sobbing. His head crashes into the back wall when he opens his eyes. But all he sees is what should have been there the whole time. A lunch-hour parking lot with the sun hitting his new silver BMW.
I didn’t really know Harley, but they say he was never the same after that. Somebody told me that just before Christmas that year he climbed up on the hood of his BMW and hung himself from a beam in his garage.
You know, it’d be sad if it weren’t so twisted. I mean, we all do crazy stuff as kids but he’d really crossed the line. And having to live with something like that all those years. . . Makes you wonder.
But for the next viewer it was different. She was this real estate exec. I can never remember her name. But anyway, she’s new to the building, right? And she thinks the hallway might be a short cut to the elevators. So she comes blasting by the window and sees a fog bank she figures must have moved in since she got to the office. But then she stops dead in her tracks because sitting on the outside window ledge is this cat and it’s a dead ringer for the one she’d had in grade school.
I mean, picture this—this crazy cat’s just calmly sitting there like some Egyptian statue or something. And even though he’s eight stories up and socked in by all this fog his radar’s honed dead-on the Market’s fish mongers, head back, sniffing the air.
Like Harley’s, the woman’s briefcase hits the floor once she sees the cat’s collar and tag. She whispers his name. “Clyde. . .” Not so much because she doesn’t want anybody to hear but because the whole thing is so completely out there and if it’s a spell she doesn’t want to break it. Plus, she’s afraid she’ll scare him off the ledge. (It’s funny I can remember the cat’s name but not hers.) So anyway, Clyde rubs against the glass and looks up at her and gives a meow she can see but not hear. She drops to her knees and tries to pet him through the glass. He stands up and puts both paws on the window with a kind of expectant look, you know? Then she presses her palms to the window and she can feel something like a vibration sort of like he used to purr, with a little pause between breaths. I mean, most cats purr straight through, you know what I’m saying? So now she and her cat are eye to eye—right? And she’s just completely blown away. Then she realizes the fog is gone and Clyde’s standing on this pink and brown linoleum they’d had in the kitchen when she was a kid. She looks up and there’s her mother, ironing one of her school uniforms. The window zooms in for a closer view. There’s a crease between her mother’s eyes as she concentrates on this one pleat. That’s how clearly she can see her. She says, “Mamma,” and when she does she feels the same sucker punch of grief that keeps sneaking up on her ever since her mother died hiking up Mt. Rainier when she was eleven.
But her mother doesn’t hear her. She just turns to stir something on the stove, crosses the linoleum and moves this sheer pink curtain aside. She looks out the window. Probably, the woman thinks, still trying to stroke Clyde through the glass, she’s checking on her grade school self. She wishes she knew what day this was—what her mother’s seeing. Her kid-self could be picking blackberries, feeding half of them to her dog Astro. Or she might be hanging by her knees on the swing set or else kneeling on the cement patio, mapping the roads of complicated cities with pastel chalk for her Matchbox cars. She did that a lot. The woman thinks all this in one quick second because that’s how fast her mother, Clyde and the whole kitchen disappear.
Here’s how I know all this. There was this old cleaning woman who worked in the building. May Robling. Turned out she’s the one most viewers told their stories to. (Even Harley, if you can believe that.)
Anyway, her viewing happened late at night. She starts to vacuum the hallway—right?—halfway realizing the parking lot isn’t lighting the carpet up like usual. After she vacuums she sprays the window with Windex. It’s pitch dark outside. She’s just beginning to wonder why when the dark becomes what looks like red carpeting and then it’s an aisle and she can see all these people she knew once seated on both sides of it. This time it’s a bottle of Windex that hits the floor, because she realizes she’s seeing her own wedding back in 1940-something. She can’t believe it but there she is, standing in front of the altar in her secondhand wedding dress. Her husband, who’s about to become a World War Two casualty, is facing her and stumbling over their wedding vows.
She’s young. She just can’t get over the fact she’d ever been that young. She’s got on this lacy hoop skirt on and her long veil, which for some reason she grabbed from the hall closet the night her house burned down. But here it’s fresh and new and her face as she looks up at him doesn’t have any lines or sags and it sort of glows from inside like she’s got a secret or something. It must have been like seeing some HD wedding video from the 1940s.
Back in the hallway the old May Robling touches her face, and runs her fingers over her wrinkles. Then she says, “Don’t.” Her voice is all shaky like the rest of her. But she has to say it because she knows without a doubt that right now, this very moment at the altar is the happiest they’ll ever be together. (I think that at weddings sometimes, but that’s just me.) But May knows now that in the short time they have before he ships out their marriage will become its own war zone where, as she put it, the sounds of combat are replaced with silences that say a million things and more casualties than you can count. She talked like that. Every day was a minefield then, she said. Every good feeling I had. Every single goddamn day.
I always liked that about her, how she talked like that. Always had a book tucked under her arm when she came to work at night and I’d pass her at the elevators, going down when she was getting out, you know? Funny how much more people are than you think sometimes.
But looking at her young self at her own wedding she knew they’d say awful things and do awful things and realizes they only got married because there was a war on, and everybody was doing it before they shipped out.
But back at the altar she and her new husband turn in May’s direction and head down the aisle. They, like, smile and nod at friends and family and all. She thinks how naive they are, with so much hope behind those stupid, perfect faces, she said. She knows how much suffering is coming and she wants to tell them, to warn them what not to do and what to do and then everything will be better between them and her memories of them together will be good ones. It’s harder to grieve when someone dies if you’re glad, is how she put it. It weighs more. It lasts longer. Twisted. But true, for all I know.
Anyway she never gets the chance to say this stuff because young May Robling and her husband are coming straight down the aisle at her. She wants to hide. She shrinks back to get out of the way because young May doesn’t know she’s walking through a window and that right behind it is the lonely, sad person she’ll become. So the glass fills with this massive bunch of lace. Nothing but lace, you know? She can hear it rustling along with their steps and their happy, clueless whispers. “Don’t.” She says it once more like Harley did. “Don’t.” Then, suddenly, nothing. She never got married again. She just got old.
You know, it’s kind of like Harley and his little brother. I mean, how crazy-making would it be to watch one of the worst mistakes of your life happen and not be able to do anything about it? You’d do something to try and stop it, right?
I don’t know if that window was a blessing or a curse. What it seemed like was that it just was and believing either way was pretty stupid. To me at least.
Anyway the last viewer I know about was Ann Alcock. We had lunch once. Nice. Married and all. We never knew we’d both been viewers. It’s not the kind of thing you bring up, right? So. She was like eight months pregnant with her first baby when it happened. I guess the baby leans on the bladder or something so she’s heading for the can for like the millionth time that day. She passes by the window and starts down the hall but then she turns around and comes back. Does a double take, like in old cartoons. What’s just registered and what she sees is this massive oak tree like the one the window showed Harley. There’s this little kid playing under it, tossing acorns up in the air, trying to hit certain branches, you know, like he’s picked a few for targets. He turns away and the window zooms in. She can see his blond curls with a cowlick in back just like her husband’s. The kid starts to climb the tree but then turns like he can hear how loud her heart’s beating. And then he’s running towards her and Ann can see, I mean, her heart knows, this is her son. She drops the purse she’s got resting on her belly and instinctively crouches down and opens her arms like she’s welcoming him to the world, you know? He keeps running with an acorn to give her in his hand. Then he stops and holds it out in his little palm and they both just look at it.  
May Robling, the cleaning lady, was the first one to tell me about her viewing, and the others’ too. She must have seen something in my face that told her I was a viewer. But thank God she did, because then I knew I wasn’t bat-shit crazy, you know?  That I wasn’t the only one. It turns out, by the way, they’d all gone back to the window like a million times but it was just a piece of glass with nothing more to show than a parking lot. I know why they tried. It’s like it’s hard not to try to go back and fix things or live the good stuff over again. It’s just human, right?  But the thing is, you can’t. You’ve gotta get it right the first time or if it’s something good, you gotta enjoy it, really get into it when it’s happening. You only get the one chance.
And us viewers, we never talked to each other about it as far as I know. Only to May. To this day I’m clueless why. Too personal maybe. She knew our stories and she shared them with the others. Or at least with me. Maybe I was the only one she did share the stories with. Because my viewing was so different. Maybe she thought I needed to know.
So far as viewers go that leaves me, right? I mean there must have been others before they tore the building down. But these are the only ones I know about through May. And once I talked to her and once I got over the freakiness I started asking, why me? I guess I’m still asking it. That’s why this urban legend shit pisses me off. It’s true. And it matters that people get it right. It really matters. I just don’t know why.
 What I saw as a viewer wasn’t the past or the future. I mean, it was but it wasn’t, you know?  It was more like the present, I guess is what I’m saying. You tell me. Sometimes I think it wasn’t even meant for me, like there was some mix-up or something. Jesus. I’m just some fuckin’ guy. Just some fuckin’ guy who worked in the mailroom.
So anyway, picture this. It’s a typical Seattle Monday, right? Stormier though. Seagulls heading inshore, away from the storm, and wind and rain hitting our building like they want in. It’s loud. And I’m good and hung-over from the weekend so the noise—it’s more like some assault weapon than a storm. One of those Monday ear-bleeding hangovers, you know?
The noise. Or no noise, I guess. That’s what blows me away at first. When I walk into this hallway it isn’t so much a feeling that something’s there but that something isn’t. Even though I’ve never been down the hall before I can see the frame of a window I know must face the parking lot. But it’s like going underwater. Like a pause between breaths. There just isn’t any sound. No rain or wind or squawking seagulls or pounding headache, even. Just this funny, hollow tapping noise that couldn’t be the rain unless just one raindrop keeps hitting the glass. Not steady-like. More like Morse code. Like fast, but every now and then. Freaked me out. So as I get closer the tapping stops and I can see that outside the window there’s no rain, no parking lot, no Seattle even. Instead I see an old flat green chalkboard moving slowly from side to side, like swinging, kind of swinging and wobbling in and out like a wave. It’s flat but it’s a wave. I can’t explain it. I mean it’s so close to the glass it isn’t framed by anything like a chalkboard would be. I can’t see around it at all. But I figure that’s what it must be because I can see leftover chalk marks where things had been almost erased by somebody. But they don’t look like words exactly—some do, but way too light to read. Mostly what I thought I saw were equations. But farther down the board there were word marks. Something in a foreign language like Chinese, where you read right to left. Or is that Japanese? I can never remember.
I always thought fractals were cool and I saw this show on the Fibonacci numbers when I was in the hospital and higher than piss on morphine after my motorcycle accident so I didn’t change the channel. I really got into it. Who knew these spaced-out shapes could come from equations? And that nature repeats itself that way. It’s like, in everything. But on this board, someone had started to write the number sequence, which can go on forever by the way. But then it turned into Egyptian writing, like hieroglyphics, you know? Cartouches, those king-name things in shapes inside boxes. It’s not like any of this is clear at all. I stand back, I get close. But it’s all so washed or erased I can believe I’m imagining it. It’s so light and then I see there are layers of words or marks or whatever and the lightest ones, the ones in back are moving. I want to try to write down what I think I’m seeing so I can look it up online. The equations, the Egyptian stuff. But all I’ve got is my fucked-up mail cart with the bad wheel. Everyone gets e-mail anyway. So there isn’t much but packages and legal docs and I don’t have a pen. I don’t have my phone to take pictures either.
Anyway, I stand at the chalkboard for what seems like forever. I even reach out to touch it and my fingernail makes that scritchy noise that hits you in the spine. I’m staring at the mark I made, and the board goes still. No more waves or side to side shit, which makes it even weirder. I keep staring at this chalkboard and trying to figure out what it means. What it’s trying to tell me. It’s like between the two of us we’re having a kind of stare-down.
But if we are I lose that round because I can’t stop myself from looking down when I feel something in my hand that wasn’t there before. I didn’t realize my fists were clenched but I open them. In my right hand there’s this chipped piece of yellow chalk about two inches long. It wasn’t there before, I shit you not.
So I keep twisting and turning this thing between my fingers. It’s smooth and dry and cool and it feels like it belongs in my hand It’s like my hand had been grown just to hold that chalk at just that moment, you know?  But—and this is where it gets totally whack—there’s like some sort of urgency to it. It’s hard to explain but it’s like it’s waiting for something. Vibrating like a phone, blinking like a cursor.
But by the time I look back up again the chalkboard’s gone. Instead I see the lights of Seattle all blurred by a solid sheet of rain. I hear the ferries docking out on Puget Sound and the seagulls circling and squawking. And my hangover and the wind and now hail starts up full force like someone just turned them all back on and cranked them up to eleven. And I feel sad. Like somebody had gone away I knew wasn’t coming back.  
So that’s how stranger than strange being a viewer was for me. Anyway, that was three years ago and nothing like it’s ever happened to me before or since. Now the building’s been replaced by condos. Traffic’s even crazier, with the new high rises and lofts and Amazon and all. I got out about the right time and Sturgis suits me fine.  
As far as the viewers go, I never did find out what happened to the woman who saw her cat Clyde and her mother. May Robling was killed in a car accident a couple years ago. I went to the funeral. Nobody else was there, really. I was there though and I went to the burial and I fuckin’ cried, man. She took all our stories with her. “Better the next world than this”, they say. “She’s in a better place.” They say that too, dude. That’s what they say. Me, I say, “Safe journey, May Robling. Precious cargo.” That’s what I said when they threw in the dirt, you know? I don’t know what the hell I meant or where it came from. Maybe it was a time hangover from the mailroom. Or like fractals with safe numbers on journeys that never end. But that’s what I told her. People take whole libraries with them when they go, man. Entire hard drives. They hold the stories safe and it’s like wherever they end up those stories end up too. If they’re your stories that’s where they are.
But whatever else it does, life goes on, right? Before May there was Harley’s suicide. People tried to act all shocked—liked they cared and shit. You kind of have to, right?  And about that time Ann Alcock’s son was born.  Crazy how if you pay attention, deaths and births, they come together, right? Crazy. She had a framed picture of him on her desk, and a bunch more pinned up. A cute kid with this pink fat little face and a cowlick that pokes up in back like it’s giving directions or something.  I thought it was spooky in a good way that she had it in an oak frame she’d decorated with acorn caps all around the edges. I could be wrong, but I think she knew I knew what it meant. If that makes any sense.
It’s weird but sometimes I wonder if I should’ve written something on that chalkboard. Like I say, I’m just some fuckin’ guy. But then I think, if I had, would things be different now.  I guess that’s something I’ll never know. But there’s one thing I do know—one thing that’s never changed.
Check it out, man. It’s smaller than you’d think, but heavy in your palm, right? Like it means business.
I was a viewer. And I still have the chalk, dude. I still have the chalk.