Lynn Strongin

GETTING TO GETTYSBURG

Riley, Weathered Woman

I.

 

I thought I'd got to Gettysburg, in the land I left behind, America. But Ava's slowness nearly dealt the death blow to my dream. What would Riley, my old psychologist, say? Getting back to me late, was this an act of the subconscious? (A trick of a moth in lamplight unnerves me these winter nights. Is Ava saying Now that I have lost you, I give you back to the sea? to Blair who committed suicide? ) Ava's tardiness may have cost me the win. This is a horse of a different color. It's tough as breathing thru gauze to go on loving. Part of me lives above, part below the Mason-Dixon line. I imagine Red Coats, Union soldiers and the Federals. I concentrate on the countless times Ava has braved out my battles with illness. Keep mellow, girl, stay sane, woman, I cautioned. But whatever I do, the Indigo in me leaps up and I see the battlefield again littered with bodies, the half that has lost, and the half that has won.

The foxhounds are frozen in the traps.

Aaron tells me Rachel is in a troubling phase, but not what that trouble is.

The red gloves I brought home, delighted by their buttery calfskin, Ava has taken one look at and scowled, "They'll last all of one day. The wheelchair will ruin them."

 "Hasn't it ruined enough?" (I want to say don't speak to me of that steel trap, that cage again.)

"They're lovely," she adds with a touch of contrition.

The thing is that they'd fit Ava to the tee. It is the way she pronounces the "wh" in wheelchair with impeccable diction that riles me. Is there terror or just tremor in the wind? Father said it hurts to see too much. I'd have it no other way: glassy winter pears, the stranglehold love inflicts, the unbalanced series of battles and reconciliation's which mark married love.

I focus upon the one black window without a candle.

Alone.

I know a nun. I could ask her to say a novena for me, for us? But I hardly know what a novena is.

I don't want to upset the whole applecart. I'm too distracted by the apple-polished autumn air.

Riley calls me her "famous friend," She's is in her early seventies and has windblown silver hair. She just phoned to ask if we could postpone the lunch an hour. I was up against it again. About the wheelchair, she said "Let's not bump our head against that wall," the wall I'm against every day of my life, when it came to talking about the disability. "We've never talked about it," I said.

I go between seeing the image of Riley with the faraway unknown editor, Peter Sharples, who is only a voice to me, first a voice that accepted, then that may have rejected my article; a voice for whom I draw a body long and thin, a mental caricature in the manner of Spy's witty, elegant drawings. He has the power.  Behind this elegant ink cartoon, I paint with pastel watercolors those rolling hills of Pennsylvania where Jake, my Paralyzed Veteran of America went to college, and adored driving both before and after his injury. We were two Jews from Puritan New England, both in wheelchairs and crazy for each other. Peter Sharple's nib has written me a stinging Monday-morning letter about the piece of writing. "Am I just wasting my time? This isn't some fantasy! This is a life-process." Who is this proofreader who seems to have taken over his place, and who is taking so long? Ava is innocent of the article fighting for its life. Ava is an innocent. Riley with her glasses, her one lung scarred from cancer, her body seasoned by five births, and her husky voice (which sounds like a cigarette voice, only she gave up smoking long ago) Riley is a seasoned she-dragon who wears tweeds and British walking shoes.

The Gettysburg, dreaming of still being in its pages, crossing both fingers, like crossing the rivers of afternoon. I tote home one pair of kid gloves—red, the first Christmas decoration, a ceramic jack-in-the-box, an oven mitt that won't burn our hands. "Bravo you!" exclaims an aged neighbor as I come downhill from the village, thinking of Aaron, that good man who told me on his last visit, "Indigo, I hadn't the chance to sleep last night before I came."

 

AVA, AN INNOCENT

II

Ava is an innocent and I love her: there is the pain.. How strange to be wed to a partner of 56 who watches Buffy & The Vampire-Slayer. But then, the fact of her spending three-quarters of an hour dreaming, reading over her tofu and toast each morning. She asks, "Which hand?" hands behind her back, and "What's the magic password?"  She cups her ear to catch it, leaning close.

Still that historic battle-ground threads my mind. I weave a tapestry of it, a stiletto, Sharples' silver pen miraculously weaving those hills of Pennsylvania. Amish country again.

In the medievally cold morning, I go culling branches. Enfant Terrible says, "Yes, believe it or not, here we are. It's gradually autumn turning to winter."  Going against the grain of anger in me, I nod, smiling. We need a light touch around here:   1920's gear: a glittering headband and a boa. Longing to hear from Rachel, Rachel who is gradually becoming the Martha of the Bible. I continue to get calls almost every dinner-time from The Fireman's Burn Fund and The Liver Foundation. Mother I tell myself: Put your boxing gloves back on. You've visited the burn ward. The char smell was worse than the sights. Recall, your Daddy's work place was the asylum.

Riley will dread Michaelmass and Christmas because she lost a child at just this time of year to a brain-tumor, a boy aged nine. That was long ago, in Riley's youth but she can never forget. (I think of Rachel's two miscarriages, the precious Rowena, second child who lived.) Had we been boys, Rachel and I would have compared "Whose is longer?" but being girls we compare hoods. Hooded, that's the three of us as a family. "The Strongins are such a complicated family," Aaron writes me. Riley throws back her head laughing, and lights a cigarette "Riley, about sex," she says. "I would think it is the least important thing."

* * *

 

Ava stumbles in pale at dusk. Despite all her complaint about my actions lately she feels the need to explain her dilemmas further, "My hands are just not as steady as they were," Ava says. "We might as well face it, time is catching up with us. I need the tripod." If I see a glass half-full, she sees it half-empty. Nonetheless, she brings home a genius shot, two: one of cracked bluesilver ice, the other of poplars, at dusk, looking eerily like black-gray lace, and the moon coming up. "Sweetheart," I say, "Maybe you just imagine this slight unsteadiness of hands." Despite myself, I think—where have the years gone? It is now I know I must tell her of Gettysburg.

But first, I think, as I try to sleep, tremor! Rachel. Dear God, keep it from her! Despite her sojourn in hell, the weeks, the years, despite the family trudging after Rowena thru the valley of death, her hands have remained steady. At nearly sixty-one, no tremor. The drama of the dance, its leaps, elan, its vermilions and crimsons, that rose and gold, has faded to pale gray twilights—lessons at an art college. She thinks she may take a course in charcoals next autumn.

"Ava," I say soberly Thursday morning. "No need to keep working on the article. I've sent them final copy, but may have lost the win."

"But you told me—"

"I didn't want to tell you Monday when the letter came, it was our anniversary, my arrival in Canada." I dart a glance at the miniature maple-leaf-flag on its stand on our kitchen table.

I see Ava the child, the nun.

"What are your plans today?" I ask.

She looks into her lap. "I feel badly."

"What will you do this afternoon?"

"Going on a shoot."

"Take your gloves," I follow her to the door.

"I'm sorry," she turns to me saying again, her face never lovelier.

"It's alright. I have the main chance. Mother taught me Indigo, never forget who you are. What is a "take"? what a country? I swallow hard but  it won't break before she goes.

"You were never a crier," I hear Mother's voice say.

Dry-eyed. I become filled with elation like the ten thousand birds of my childhood sadness taking off. I begin to dialogue it out with her in my mind. It's ok about the article. But cut me some slack on my 65th birthday. I turn to you, Riley. "In marriage," you say, "one cannot be altogether forthcoming." I picture Union and Confederate flags  flying side-by-side. The flag that lost—it snaps like a neck. All is not lost. The palest eyelash moon mounts sky. It reminds me of how Ava pulls out one eyelash from her eye meticulously. I then wheel over to the red gloves on the hall table. I pick up the calfskin gloves, turn them over in my hands, like turning pages. They are soft as her cheek.

Ursula from Montreal who was raised a Roman Catholic in a household of daughters told me she and her two sisters, as little girls, wore white gloves to the elbow when they went out with their Mother downtown. Not only did these keep out germs—they kept out men. They wore hats, also, which kept their body heat in. Smiling, I put the red leather gloves down.

. . . I can remember the Old South where superstition inspired me to be good. I look on the New South from my Northern Perch, with my memory of the quietness of Quaker Barns, and know it is a land I will visit, re-visiting the old which always stirs my imagination: the New South reflects like a mirror where many, but not all, of the distortions have been corrected.

She is the only one. (I speak no treason.) The fox-rouge gloves would fit her to a tee. no sullying.. Crystal shell covers earth. The battlefield of the planet is silent for a spell. The foxes are frozen in their traps but bright as ruby our blood is moving.



* * *

Lynn Strongin's work has appeared in fifty journals and thirty anthologies, most recently the online Poets Against the War and the award-winning Visiting Emily: Poems Inspired by the Life & Work of Emily Dickinson. She has prose out or forthcoming in The Ruminator Review, Prairie Schooner, and Storie: The International Italian Literary Journal. This except is from her memoir in progress, Indigo.