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WAITING FOR GODOT IN FEBRUARY


Here goes nothing, says the sun, as the sky buries it under a cemetery of clouds. I weep for the memory of spring, as if it were my mother, who died on an operating table after refusing to have her heart torn open by a rib cracker. She'll always be my principal hero in matters of stark reality. I hold her hand sometimes when I sit in the corner of my living room and ponder my own existence. I am frail, a balsa wood model airplane my brother helped me to glue together one soggy afternoon many years ago. There we sat, patiently, our corduroy pants bunched up over our thighs and full of breadcrumbs from lunch. The tomato juice still stood in our drinking glasses, muddy and undrinkable. But we had our hands to work with, and the slender filaments of wood were notched and slid into place with the little wad of spit from the glue bottle.

I wanted to crawl into this plane and take off from the edge of the table. I wanted to fly around the room and just barely miss the doorframe with my left wing. I had mail to deliver somewhere in the cricket-booming marshlands of east Texas. I was eager to take on God at his game of chance, and escape the two-dimensional life of a middle-class kid. But the refrigerator sat there mumbling like an elderly nun fingering her rosary. I watched as a woman made her way along the narrow alley toward her backdoor, lugging her leather shopping bag. She had her hair up in pins, and a scarf wrapped tight around her forehead. She was pretty in that pale, washed-out way of women in the early 1950s. I wondered if she had any kids. I had not seen her before. She was about to turn on the radio on her kitchen table when the phone rang, and she answered it with a look of dread. I was sorry for her.

These snowstorms drag their enormous brooms of sorrow behind them and leave the world obliterated after coming from somewhere deep in the pockets of bad luck. They rise up whimsically and begin to drift forward as if pushed by disillusioned angels angry at heaven. The hedges are wrapped in thick gauze and left to die. The road that was once a narrow and precise language of motion is now lying on a table with its head bashed in. There is no splint for a broken heart, the undertaker tells me. He wheels the road away and slides out another section of American liberty and prods it with his dental probe. It doesn't move. But he seems confident that the corpse is still alive, and puts a mirror up to its mouth. A small wafer of mist forms on the glass. He injects something into the body's hairy upper arm and waits. A quiver of toes is all he needs to assure himself that he was right, and calls a nurse in from the outer room. She applies powder to the cheeks and begins combing its stiff hair. I gaze with that stupefying look of one who has just lost the last hope of democracy in his native land.

Surely there's a horse in an old barn waiting to be saddled and ridden away, a kind of tubercular and rachitic Pegasus who was pastured decades ago and still dreams of tasting the dew on the morning grass. A girl talks to it softly, touching the melancholy face with her long fingers. Her brother's up in the attic combing through his grandfather's love letters. He can't believe an old man could feel such passion, and write with a quivering fountain pen thoughts only poets should know about. But there he is, pouring out his heart to a woman who has married his rival. She doesn't answer any of them, but broods in her bedroom over the falling snow piling up on her windowsill. The cat preens itself on her desk and stares off as if he heard the voice of some ghost whispering to him.

The sky has many hidden staircases where you can sneak up and look around in the lower reaches of salvation. It's where you go to dream, and when you can't sleep, you wander there in the purple heather with a friend, and when you reach the opaque water of the shore, you turn around and go down by another stair to your bedroom. I don't say it's the way to conduct your life. It is not the means of moral instruction, or a path to riches. It's just what you do because the material world is limited and shrinking as you grow up. I chew gum sometimes to keep from smoking my pipe. I can't taste my food at dinner when my mouth is covered with an ash as fine as talcum powder. I don't want to chew on some lump of potato and not taste the butter. I just want to be direct with my experience.

When my brother had his accident on the motorcycle, I felt the earth shrug under me. It wasn't moved by the news of his broken leg. The leaves on that country road were slick and he came in at an angle and the bike skipped out from under him and the footrest snapped his tibia He was discovered by a delivery man who called emergency, and when the attendants arrived, they called my mother. It was like receiving the news of a death from the war. You felt that same numbness to walk through on your way to the hospital. My mother brought him home and propped him up on the easy chair in the living room. She made a fire and served him tea and ginger snaps. She was stoical, resigned to her situation. My father would come home and find his middle son lying there asleep. I would be reading my schoolbook and would pretend to be the good son. The truth is, I was a hypocrite and prayed for the snow to fall out of the bloated, sagging sky. If the snow came, I could heave my homework into the darkest corner and daydream. Love had not yet awakened that cauliflower in my chest, the white bush that would grow pale little buds next year. And a girl would find me mildly interesting for a few weeks and then fling me into the dark wind blowing out of the Midwest.

Let's just say, I was biding my time. The weatherman was gargling into the microphone some depressing forecast about heavy fog, a glaze of ice on the roads, some scattered precipitation well to the north of us. There were people sitting at their picture windows in the suburbs that looked up now and then as if to determine for themselves what the future was bringing. I didn't care. I wanted to draw in my tablet, but I was hopelessly inept with a crayon. I couldn't make it snow ideas, or rain fragments of my dreams. I was an ice tray loaded with idle thoughts. One day I would dress up and strut around the house as if I were important, but right now, it was best to be patient with the grudging progress of my youth. I heard myself singing as I descended the steps into the basement. The boxes of forgotten experience were piled up against the wall, and the broken washing machine stood its ground in a corner behind the furnace. It was clear from their desolate looks that there would be school tomorrow, and that Lent would begin soon. The pope was this fragile old man talking in clouds of Latin as he pronounced some new papal bull from his Vatican window.

Let me say this about childhood. It's not a country, or an island lost among the glittering steel blades of an ocean at sunrise. It's not candy or presents from relatives, or new shoes still wrapped in paper in the closet. It's about the hats you wear as your head grows heavy and thought begins to cling to the sides of your speech like the barnacles of a ferry piling. It's about the first hand you held without shaking it or pressing a coin into. It's about the smell of lilacs after a girl has passed you in the hall. It's about the sharp knife someone had pressed into your back when you were gazing ahead at the future. It's about your name, which you thought you liked until someone said it with a sneer. It's about being number four in the class, and number twenty in the gym. It's about your teeth being crooked, and your neck too long. Your pants fell over your instep and made you cringe at the sight of your ordinary life. It's about the snow that kept accumulating at the edges of your world without filling in the hollows where the school was lying in wait for you.

Bless you, I say to the evening as it winds itself around the house. It is a feather boa of illicit thoughts and unknown pleasures. The reek of beer comes up from the corner tavern, and the sound of something starved and hopeless keeps leaking out of the speakers of a jukebox. You wonder who keeps feeding quarters to it, but then you see it is the woman with the scarf, who holds a beer in her hand and is waiting for her husband to get off work.

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